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A Few Things Men Do Well (The Male Advantage–part 4)

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 18, 2012

Men excel at hierarchies.  Our male predecessors tended to favor the old command-and-control style of managing businesses—and the switch to a looser, more collaborative style is one of the happier improvements brought about by the arrival of women in management.  But hierarchies still rule the workplace, and though it’s not fashionable to say so, this is a good thing, even if they happen to be a male specialty.  In a classic Stanford University study, groups of male college freshmen put in a room and given a problem to solve needed less than fifteen minutes to sort themselves into hierarchies.   That’s because boys start choosing up sides and figuring out who’s in charge on the pre-school playground, and never really stop.   Girls are just a little wobblier when it comes to hierarchies.

Sometimes no doubt men get carried away with the power struggles.  I was once talking to executives at an auto manufacturer about the notion that a round table can make boardroom discussions more egalitarian.  Then the head of sales set us straight:  “The round table just makes it easier for everybody to see the kill.”  But most of the time, the male strategy of establishing who’s in charge and where all the players fit in serves to reduce needless aggression, set goals, coordinate moving parts, and get business done.

Men work harder.  Modern society has demonstrated that women can learn to be almost as shallow and competitive as we are.  But they work shorter hours, by more than 25 percent on average, typically so they can spend more time on family and friends.  In a recent study of the would-be careerists who earned degrees since 1990 from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, virtually all of the men—but only 62 percent of the women–were still employed full-time 10 or more years out. Likewise, after seven years of post-college training, only 67 percent of women pediatricians work full-time.  Taking care of their own kids evidently comes to seem more important than taking care of other peoples’.

Men work longer hours because we’re more motivated, says Baumeister. “Men are much more interested than women in forming large groups and working in them and rising to the top in them.”  We have a richer history at it, and we’re also driven to compete on the job by the deeply-ingrained memory of our dismal reproductive odds.

Men are smarter than women.  O.k., we’re stupider, too.  In fact, men tend to show up more at the extremes not just for intelligence (geniuses versus dolts) but for a variety of traits, including height, weight, body mass index, performance in the 60 meter dash, and personality.  “Whether we are talking about kindness versus cruelty, curiosity versus close-mindedness, wisdom versus immature pigheadedness, self control versus self-indulgence, or humility versus narcissism,” says Baumeister, “there are more men than women at both the good and the bad extremes.”

Given this tendency, it probably shouldn’t be so surprising that there are more men at the top of most organizations.  The opposite extreme is true, too:  There are also more men at the bottom.  (Oddly, women never mention this when they complain that a “glass ceiling” of discrimination holds them down.)  In fact, there’s a trap door to the sub-sub-basement–and, gentlemen, for us, admission is free.  For much of our history, men have quietly accepted that the dark and dirty work of the world—digging the coal, stoking the furnaces, hammering the steel, collecting the garbage–is our lot.

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