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May 31, 2005


Man as Machine

One of my least favorite columnists in the New York Times, John Tierney, has been writing lately about why men still more or less run the world when women today have unprecedented access to education, networking, and positions of power. His op-ed from last week concluded that women have the capability and opportunity to reach top positions in their fields of work, but many of them choose not to, deciding instead to have some semblance of a normal life outside of work. Men, on the other hand, are likely to see their jobs as a winner-takes-all tournament, so they are more likely to sacrifice everything to get to the top. And he says they like competition more than women do.

Today's op-ed looks at Scrabble tournaments rather than the corporate world. Tierney notices that, while women outnumber men in Scrabble clubs, the winners and top 50 players are almost exclusively men. Are women just not as good at anagrams as men are?

No, he suggests, men are just more willing to commit themselves totally to being the best Scrabble players in the world. They want to be Scrabble machines. "You need more than intelligence and a good vocabulary to become champion. You have to spend hours a day learning words like 'khat,' doing computerized drills and memorizing long lists of letter combinations, called alphagrams, that can form high-scoring seven-letter words." Women seem to be less willing to do this extra time-consuming work to edge up another ranking or two in the Scrabble champion hierarchy.

Tierney's suggestion for why men will sacrifice everything to reach the top is the same old tired evolutionary explanation we've heard a million times: successful men do better with the ladies. Men at the top will be more likely to attract both long-term partners and women for quick flings, so they pass on their genes more, so many of us are descended from these Scrabble champs who supposedly get laid a lot. Men stand to gain or lose more in an evolutionary sense by whether or not they win the Scrabble tournament, while women will probably still find someone regardless.

Nothing new here. Related to Tierney's ideas, I have some theories of my own about the male drive for expertise (for example, why men are more likely than women to have extensive record collections of '70's German art rock, all on vinyl, or have enclyclopedic knowledge of Swedish new wave films,) which I will admit I developed mostly while reading White Noise in a college English class. But what I find really interesting is the similarly single-minded, machine-like attitude that men seem to take to arenas of life that are in no way competitive in nature, and that are relatively new areas of participation for men, such as spa treatments.

Another Times article today says that more and more men are going to spas, especially as part of business trips, and they aren't going to relax. No way. One businessman goes to a fancy spa in Miami on his way home from business trips, and describes his treatments like this: "I go in there for a lube job and oil change. I don't go to relax; I go to get rehabilitated."

Spas that cater to men have made a few changes to make men feel more comfortable in territory that is traditionally as female as it gets, by installing TVs in the locker rooms so the naked men could have something to look at besides other naked men, but it seems that as long as the treatments sound like automotive services, men love them. A 50 year-old vice president of a mortgage company in Illinois had the "golf performance treatment" at a hotel while there recently with about 20 colleagues, mostly male, and their spouses. "I'd say everyone of them got some type of spa treatment," he said, and some, including himself, had multiple visits. "I don't mean to sound like a chick," he said. "It just feels so good."

Maybe the male striving for perfection in professional competition, intellectual capacity, and reduced pore size all come down to the quest for reproductive advantage, I don't know. But it would be nice if the corporate world was structured so that talented and ambitious women were encouraged to achieve their full potential without the pointless winner-takes-all mentality that encourages us to spend our weekends memorizing alphagrams. Then maybe we could achieve the mythical work/life balance, and rich businessmen would feel more comforable getting a facial without talking about it like it's a car tune-up.

categories: Business, Gender, Media
posted by amy at 11:40 AM | #

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I think Tierney is correct when he argues that a major factor in why the upper echelons of achievement are inhabited mainly by men is due to an often male-specific predilection for extreme specialization. However, I do not agree that this trait characterizes all men. Rather, I think that a subpopulation of men and a signifcantly smaller subpopulation of women exhibit these characteristics. Like baldness, we can argue about why these traits exist in a minority of the population, are sex-specific, and what, if any, evolutionary advantage they confer.

Posted by: Agent 0019 at June 1, 2005 2:37 PM

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