Do you have an impossible dream? Well, research shows that women should maybe take a chance when the odds are against them, as they have the perseverance and innate reasoning skills to succeed when men give up, says Rhian Morgan
If you want to look at the differences in competition between men and women, says leading political consultant Paul Begala, then a scene from Dumb and Dumber sums it up. Jim Carrey’s character Lloyd asks Lauren Holly’s Mary what the chances are of having a relationship.
“Not good,” she replies.
“Not good…like one in 100?” asks Lloyd.
“More like…one in a million,” says Mary.
And Lloyd screams in delight: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”
Therein lays the difference between men and women, according to journalists and authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, in Top Dog, a book I was reading recently on the science of winning and losing. When faced with overwhelming odds against, women consider the risk too great, while men confidently step forward and take the chance.
Weighing up the odds
When you look at studies, there’s little evidence to suggest women are less competitive than men. However, women don’t as eagerly turn situations into competitions as men, which is no bad thing. The first woman to serve in US Congress, Jeannette Rankin, was elected in 1916, four years before a constitutional amendment gave women the right to vote (suffragette Rankin could vote in her home state of Montana but 30 other states had outlawed it). Nearly a century on and little has changed. Men overwhelm politics. Many believe sexism is to blame, especially in the States. And even more spout ageism. Yet women are actually voted into office as often as men. It seems that women are more reluctant to stand for election in politics, despite various schemes to encourage them.
Professor Sarah Fulton undertook a study into the reasons why. She found that men were more likely to stand for office if they had any chance of winning. However, women had to have at least a 20% chance of success before they would consider putting themselves forward. But when the odds are high, more women jump in to candidacy than men.
Take, for example, Mary Creagh, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, who withdrew from the Labour leadership election in June after the Daily Express revealed there were odds of 50-1 of her winning the race.
Fulton found that women were more strategic, as well as more influenced by the costs and benefits of winning, than men. For instance, if there is no strong, entrenched incumbent in the seat. Or for roles such as school governor, which they feel they have a good chance of securing a position.
This plays out across all arenas. For instance, a Stockholm University study showed that elite women chess players are less likely to open with an aggressive move. They make more considered moves and take more time doing it.
Economics professor Muriel Niederle has studied women’s under-representation in the boardroom. For instance, in one study, she found that almost 75% of men were more likely to enter a maths competition with a one in four chance of winning (only a third of women entered, stating they were put off by the odds). Niederle found that men were over-confident in their abilities, while women were more realistic.
An innate competitiveness
And yet it seems that women are innately more competitive under the right conditions. Professor C Kirabo Jackson found from his study of schools on Trinidad and Tobago that girls who attended the most elite, single-sex schools did much better than boys, who were better off going to a less-competitive, less elite school, with mixed sexes. Even more surprisingly, boys’ maths scores suffered in the elite schools.
When these studies were replicated in China, they found the same results. As did Britain. After looking at test scores of 1,300,000 children in British public schools, the top five per cent of boys had a bad effect on the others, discouraging them. While women were more inspired by their successful peers. And this is due to over-confidence, according to Jackson. Girls expect to be confronted by competition but when they see that they have been given the best boost in life, (again, when the odds are in their favour), they work harder to succeed. Boys are more confident they will be top dog so that, when faced with better peers, are discouraged when that confidence takes a hit.
Also, when girls fall behind, they ask for help. Boys, however, don’t, as they see it as a sign of weakness. But why do boys become discouraged when they are more likely to try to beat impossible odds? It seems it’s the years of competition that grind boys down. Males can recover in, say, a sports match. But when the competition is their life, then they eventually give in. Thus studies show that women are good at infinite competitions, men at finite ones.
So let’s look at the findings of numerous studies. They say that, as a woman, you are more considered than a male colleague, take less risky chances, are motivated by success, and are realistic, and indefatigable. Surely, these are all traits that you, as a manager, look for when hiring people.
So when you think the odds are insurmountable, that your dream is beyond reach, you would do well to remember that you have already succeeded, and that by virtue of your sex, you have a myriad of advantages which means you can make the impossible possible.
Or as Labour activist Kirstin Hay recently said: “We’ve all got opinions and a voice, why not test it out. You can be sure plenty of men will test theirs.”
Take a leaf out of their book and, whatever your hardest goal is, take a step towards it today..