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Are girls wired not to win?

In a controversial new book, psychologist Susan Pinker uncovers the workings of the hormone oxytocin, which she claims explains why females are biologically driven to nurture their young rather than climb the corporate ladder

I first found Elaine’s story in a newspaper article she had written, headlined “My glass ceiling is self-imposed”. She described herself as a female executive on the fast track to the corner office who had refused a promotion in a multinational company earning billions and felt she needed to explain why.

She detailed how her company provided every possible perk to promote women’s success, including networked home offices so they could telecommute, flexi-hours, an in-house dry cleaner and gym, an income supplement for a nanny and on-site care for sick children. It was rated one of the top 100 companies for women to work for in the United States and Europe.

Her promotion would have put her third from the top in a company of 12,000 employees with offices in more than 60 countries and on the shortlist to become the company’s chief executive within a few years. Yet she had stalled her own advancement.

I thought that Elaine just might be able to fill in the blanks about why it was becoming increasingly clear that highly capable women were pulling out of the race. Research showed that about 60% of gifted women turn down promotions or take positions with lower pay so as to weave flexibility or a social purpose into their work lives.

Elaine was eager to tell me her story. She was glamorous, with athletic good looks and an easy-going confidence, and it soon became clear that she was hardly lacking in ambition. She had assiduously worked her way up the executive ladder.

She got straight to the point, telling me that, besides a job she loved, she had two small children, a husband and parents, all of whom were central to her happiness. A promotion would require moving to another city, and while it would boost her status and salary, it would destabilise her family.

Her explicit message: work is essential but so are the needs of her family. The subtext? Saying so is somehow shameful. It’s not a wise gambit to turn down a promotion, much less ascribe one’s reasons to the time-warped notion that the feelings of loved ones matter to you as much as achievement at work.

Over lunch, Elaine described the reactions of men in her circle. “When I said no, the president just looked at me and said, ‘I think you’re nuts’. My father-in-law was almost speechless – he was CEO of a company and moved his five kids all over the world.”

She also spoke about the pressures on women to take top jobs: “The company’s desperate – they want women at the senior executive level.” To get more gender balance at the top, she told me, offers too good to refuse were being made to other deserving women, as long as they were willing to move and, if they were successful, to move again a few years later. She had known just one who had said yes – someone without a family.

Could Elaine be representative of other highly placed women? There’s plenty of evidence that many more women than men refuse promotions out of consideration for family, including women at the top of their game......article conts (-)

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