I enter this debate with trepidation! As many readers know, even those at the far reaches
of this globe, the President of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, suggested, in a
recent symposium studying why mathematics and the sciences had relatively fewer
women representatives than men, that perhaps, just perhaps, the problem might be
attributed to some innate differences between the sexes. Oh my! The immediate
outpouring of vitriol, including one woman academic who walked out on the President´s
speech, swamped all reasonable discourse and forced Mr. Summers to apologize and
retract his words. A small portion of the faculty has even voted no confidence in the
President. Here again is an example of ideology, fixed political opinion, and years of
fighting entrenched discrimination overwhelming any possibility of rational discussion.
As the initial tidal wave of feminine acrimony subsided, others stepped in. Some noted
that it is the manifest responsibility of academic leaders to ask probing, difficult and often
embarrassing questions. That´s the essence of intellectual stimulus. Then others cited the
differences that set males and females apart. Boys, The Economist wrote, are "four times
more likely to be autistic than girls." A new medical study announced that taking an
aspirin a day reduces the chance of heart attack for men but not women. Are women
therefore less susceptible to heart attack? Only women can bear children, requiring time
for this responsibility. So what’s new? Women and men are different, but does that tell
us anything about the unique capabilities of an individual woman or man? Is it a social
disaster if every profession, every discipline, every job is not precisely divided by the
prevailing male/female ratio in the population?
The discipline of risk management offers some guidance. Too much of this current debate
is based on possible negative outcomes, the potential inability of someone to command a
skill or succeed in a job. Just as risk management shortchanges itself by addressing only
negative results, so too does society but looking only at possible incapabilities.
I suggest, for once, we look at the positive side of the natural differences that exist in our
species. Rather than deny them, or create artificial barriers to block people or incentives
to spur them, why not look for the unique characteristics that make one sex or another
better equipped for certain jobs.
Begin such an analysis with time, our finite resource. Rampant workaholism—the
tendency to require and glorify the notorious eighty-hour week—contributes to the myth
that some women can´t hack it in the modern world, especially when they try and balance
a career with childrearing. For success in law, consulting, the sciences, politics and many
other careers, the prevailing mantra is "more time is better, and if you aren’t willing to
spend it, you´re out!" By accepting this mantra, we´ve not only cut off access to a
talented half of the population but we may, at the same time, have increased the risk of
dogmatism and reduced the chances for insight and creativity.
Many years ago, Blaise Pascal was said to have written a long letter to a friend,
apologizing that "if I had more time, my letter would have been shorter," implying that
more time equals better output. Was Pascal wrong? I think so. More time devoted to a
task does not necessarily mean that the quality of the output, the decision, the
conclusion, is any better. Quality is determined less by the total hours then by how a
mind grapples with a problem, its ability to create that "Eureka!" moment of insight.
And herein lies the quality that women may bring to the table. Are women, innately,
better managers of time, better producers of insight? Is it possible that, because they are
biologically required to master many totally different tasks within a workday, they can
apply less time to problems with better results? The current business jargon calls this
"multi-tasking." Are women better at it?
My answer is based on empirical evidence gathered over forty years. I cite experience
with one female associate, one spouse and three daughters. In the 1970s my consulting
firm hired a female associate for administrative responsibilities. She had one child and
became pregnant with a second. We gave her time off for the birth of a son, simply telling
her to let us know when she felt comfortable returning to part-time or full-time work.
After two months she asked to do work at home, following that with part-time work in
the office, and then returning full-time, even though she often left the office at 4:30 p.m.
for her home responsibilities. This was all flexible time, long before it was the norm, and
for almost two years, she worked less than the conventional eight-hour day. My point:
during all that time her productivity exceeded those who worked the usual hours. The
presumed limitation of her femininity was well offset by her productivity. That
experience was echoed by my spouse´s work for a local architect. She drafted only six
hours a day, and skipped lunch, so that she could manage a home for a husband and four
children and also play with a ladies´ tennis group three afternoons a week. When I asked
him about this arrangement, most unusual thirty-five years ago in the United States, he
told me that she produced in those six hours more than any other draftsman in his office
produced in eight. Finally, I´ve watched, with growing admiration, three daughters raise
seven grandchildren and still manage a variety of careers ranging from high-pressured
executive in New York City, and a home-based consultant, to home-schooling.
While this admittedly modest sample could be part of a deductive fallacy, it does suggest
that women, possibly, may manage time better. In some instances they can be more
productive in less time. Their obstacle is our illusion that the Pascal principle can be
taken to extremes. We spend too much raw time doing something and too little time
thinking about what we should do, too little time managing that time, too little time
cleansing our minds by doing something completely different.
There´s a second aspect to how we use time. Several years ago I used the analogy of
solving a crossword puzzle to show that one large block of time does not serve nearly so
well as several small blocks, separated by different mental and physical pursuits. I
proved it again one morning in March. As soon as I was stumped by a Friday New York
Times puzzle, I stopped and spent several hours writing and doing chores. When I
returned to the puzzle in the late afternoon, I managed to finish all but a quarter. Again, I
tried different work, coming back to the crossword after dinner, at which time I completed
it easily. Just over an hour, separated into three short segments, allowed me to do
something that even three hours of concentrated time could not achieve. My point is that
large blocs of time may be less productive than several shorter periods separated by
totally different work, mental and physical.
I suggest that women, naturally designed and required to play many different roles, may
not only be able to show greater productivity in less time, but also be more insightful. If
these theses are correct, they tell us we should re-design the entire idea of "work" to take
advantage of the difference. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in The New York Times (February
20, 2005), "until we change our bedrock assumptions about what the proper balance of
work and life should be, women will always pay a price for interrupting their careers to
have children." As it is today, we are mesmerized by "obsessive time-maximizers" (in the
words of David Brooks) who engage themselves in a life-long "productivity marathon."
Are we inadvertently punishing the more adaptable?
It was not so long ago that women were considered chattels. The Chinese bound
women´s feet to reduce mobility. The Abrahamic religions swathed them in cloth from
head to toe (the habits of Christian nuns, the chadors and burkhas of Islam), customs that
persist today. We still fight entrenched superstition and discrimination. But, if we try
and look for the innate differences that make women better equipped to contribute to
society, then we may avoid the unnecessary uproar that followed an academic´s
suggestion that these differences exist.
Time is a finite asset. More of it does not necessarily mean a better outcome. Managing
time more intelligently will help all of us, and women may just be better managers of time.
And, who knows, men might be able to learn from them.
Marriage has many virtues and one not often remarked upon by bachelors is that it helps
to persuade a man that he is neither omniscient nor even infallible. A husband has but to
utter a wish for it to be denied, countered, crossed, contradicted; or to hear the word but,
followed by a pause, a very short pause in general, while the reasons that this wish
should not be observed are marshaled—it is misconceived, contrary to his best interests,
contrary to his real desires.
Patrick O´Brian, The Nutmeg of Consolation, W. W. Norton & Co.,
New York 1991