Women, I was recently told, have no excuse not to be as successful as men. Strictly speaking, true. Girls perform better academically on average than boys, they are better readers and are even, it seems, encroaching on the boys’ traditional advantage of being better at mathematics. So why is it that the most famous names in any domain in life — except women’s tennis and women’s football — tend to be men?
What happens when these girls and boys grow up? Why the discrepancy in achievement in adulthood? Is it that women really are inferior, are they lazy, do they suffer a lack of ambition or are they simply unable to turbo charge their careers because of social and familial constraints?
My argument has always been that as long as women bear the children they will always be left behind in the achievement game. To excel in any field, one needs not only talent. Excelling requires dedication and concentration that go beyond what effort one needs to give to the day job. It requires working asocial hours and being away from home if and when necessary. It is difficult to find women, in the most advanced societies even, who are able to detach themselves from their children for so long.
Believe me, any woman with children cherishes the time she is away from home, alone. Although one can hire drivers and nannies and cleaners and cooks and teachers to fulfill the daily grind, these people come at a price, not only financial but also emotional a.k.a. guilt.
Moreover, women tend to have children who are of a young age when they are in their thirties, which is also the time when they are at their most productive and creative and able to give the most to their chosen careers.
Still, to put my money where my mouth is, I decided to look up women who had made it in this man’s world and check out their family situation. My search started out well.
Amelia Earhart, the famous aviator, had no children. Neither did Camille Claudel, seen as one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century. Madeline Albright, the first woman US secretary of state, was divorced.
So does the guilt that plagues the mother hen who is away from her chicks indicate that the success gap is biological?
In November 2005, the British Journal of Psychology published a study that claimed that men had physically bigger brains than women and also an IQ that is averagely higher than women’s by around 3-5%. No matter how many women have exceptionally high IQs, it claims, there will be men who will have even higher IQs, who are able to create more and, thus, win more Nobel prizes.
Good for them. We’ll have dinner warm and ready by the time they come back from Stockholm.
My search moved on to the Nobel Prize winners’ list. Of around 780 winners of the Nobel Prize, only 34 have been women. Around half of them had children. Had I lost the plot? Do women really have no excuse not to be as successful as men? Are women genetically wired to raise the kids? Or are men simply, as the controversial British study claims, more intelligent?
Apparently neither. A recent study by the Brookings Institution concludes that women may suffer from an ‘ambition gap’, at least when it comes to politics. It claims that although research shows that women perform just as well as men in office (or whilst running for it), few women actually do run for office. Professional women, according to the study, are not as eager or as ambitious as men to succeed in that field.
Women self-censor, or as put by Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, “impose their own ‘glass ceiling’.” Women know that they can succeed as well as men but that success and excellence carry a heavy price that many are not willing to make themselves, or their families, pay. (Making the child-bearing female Nobel Prize winners truly exceptional women!)
Now back to that controversial study. The same study that claimed that men are physiologically more intelligent also claimed that when men and women are of equal intelligence, the women tend to achieve more, are more conscientious, methodical and able to sustain long periods of hard work.
Lack of ambition? Call it what you want, I call it common sense. And forget child rearing, can anyone even dare imagine what a man would be like on the first day of his period?
Rana Hanna is a mother of three who is proud of being an ‘under-achiever’.