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Time to kick the gender gap into touch

Recently, after France had crashed out of the World Cup and England’s performance was too painful to watch, I was sent an e-mail by a firm of management consultants. What was going wrong, it said, was that the teams’ managers were acting just like men. If only they had behaved more like women and been consensual and caring, they might have persuaded their players to kick the ball into the back of the net rather more often.

Footballing mishaps are the latest in a series of catastrophes to be blamed on a surfeit of maleness. When Lehman Brothers went bust, lots of people said that if it had been Lehman Sisters things might have turned out differently. The same point is now being made about BP: if women had been in charge, safety might have been a bigger priority and the planet might have been cared for rather better.

Much of this is total twaddle, especially for football and banking. At BP the female touch would not have saved the day either, but it might have ensured it was not lost quite so disastrously.

On football, I hesitate to lay down the law as last Wednesday I cheered three times as I watched England scoring three goals in close succession, only to be told by people in the know that the second two were replays shown from three confusingly different angles.

Still, I do at least know that the armchair commentators don’t know what they are talking about. Some were saying that England needed more passion. Some said they needed less. No one has the foggiest idea of how the strange alchemy of football really works. But one thing is clear. If football were to become more caring and sharing it wouldn’t be any fun to watch and the clubs would all go bust. Furthermore, football managers are already showing rather too much of their female side as it is – at least as far as their hairdos are concerned. Fabio Capello’s uniform brown thatch and the raven black manes of Germany’s Joachim Löw and Argentina’s Diego Maradona suggest that all three managers are slaves to Grecian 2000. If I were their hairdressers, I’d suggest some honest grey masculinity come through instead.

As for the theory that the world would be better if women ran the banks – to be debated this week at an event sponsored by Barclays Capital in London – I really can’t see much sense in it at all. It’s true that many women are risk-averse and look askance at dodgy derivatives, but those tend not to be the women who would be seen dead working in a bank anyway. Only in the case of BP does the pro-woman argument have some merit: Tessa Hayward would have been no better than Tony at injecting rubber bands into the hole to plug the leak, but she would most definitely not have said she wanted her life back.

There is only one clear difference between men and women managers: women are less confident and a bit more hung up on approval, which means that they are less likely to put their feet in their mouths. When it comes to gaffes, women simply can’t compete.

Admittedly, the quantity of the data on this is somewhat limited, but the quality is unbeatable. Take our own royal family and compare the gaffometer of the Queen to that of Prince Philip. Her reading is close to zero. His is close to infinity. Think of Margaret Thatcher. She said a lot of very controversial things, but they weren’t gaffes. Angela Merkel doesn’t drop many clangers either, unlike Messrs Silvio Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy or Gordon Brown. President Barack Obama, who roasted General Stanley McChrystal for his clangers last week, has been known to drop a few himself.

When women do slip up, it isn’t always fatal. Carly Fiorina, businesswoman turned political hopeful, had her microphone turned on before an interview and was heard saying of her Democrat rival: “Gaad, what IS that hair? Soo yesterday!” It wasn’t her finest moment; though to accuse someone of having unfashionable hair is less of a cuss than, say, accusing them of being a bigot.

Part of the reason why women are relatively gaffe-free may be that most slips are made in unguarded moments. Women are most likely to be off-guard when with their own sex, and powerful women are nearly always surrounded by men. It’s also because women don’t go around noisily asserting the first thing that comes into their heads. This may be a bad characteristic when it comes to landing a top job but, given that gaffes are now the number one way of ending a high-profile career, it is a pretty useful trait for survival.

(This article appeared originally in the FT)
Lucy Kellaway

lucy.kellaway@ft.com

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