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Devangshu Datta: Centrefolds and chuddies


Devangshu Datta  |  New Delhi 

When Harvard announced the appointment of its first-ever woman president, another crack appeared in the gender divide. Harvard was the fourth of eight Ivy League US colleges to appoint a woman CEO. In that respect, the premier US educational institutions have been progressive. Just 25 per cent of US colleges are "chaired" by women although slightly over 50 per cent of American college students are female.

The educational "gender leadership" ratio is a lot better than in business. Meg Whitman and Indra Nooyi are icons across the gender divide""but only 21 out of all the Fortune 500 CEOs would admit to wearing bras under their power suits. That reflects a big gender disparity in the boardroom.

This is odd because there isn't that much overall workforce disparity (it's around 60:40 in favour of men in developed countries). Upper management is drawn from the ranks of B School alumni and MBA gender ratios are much closer to equal.

Of the short-list of women who have made it to CEO of large MNCs, most have tended to be over-performers. There is controversy about the legacy of Rebecca Mark or Carly Fiorina but their CVs also suggest very high competence. Nobody's accused them of making mistakes because they were women.

Of course, there are skews across professions. Comparatively few women opt to become telecom network engineers, taxi-drivers, crane operators or IT mavens. Fewer men opt for careers in entertainment, the media, Tupperware/Avon sales or advertising.

Very few women seek their calling in the armed forces or as civil aviation pilots, racing drivers or jockeys. These jobs demand high skill levels, fast-track learning, and the ability to cope with high stress.

Women who have opted for these careers do better than the average. To take an extreme example, the Russian partisankas during the Second World War used their flamethrowers as efficiently and brutally as the men during street-fighting episodes.

American women who have served in Iraq, a war without a "frontline" as such, have also managed stress well. Air force and civilian women pilots have excellent records across the world. The few women jockeys or racetrack drivers are also out-performers, rather than symbols of tokenism.

This may be due to a selection bias. In the 1950s and 60s, black Americans had very low loan default rates and very low insurance claims rates. This was because only the cream made it through a system that discriminated against them. Although there have women in the workforce for decades, only the toughest, smartest women are bloody-minded enough to stick it out through male locker room jokes, endure sexual harassment at military academies and ignore the out-of-date Pirelli calendars and centrespreads at the pit-stop.

As gender disparities ease, women in the workforce will also revert closer to quality norms and start making just as many mistakes as the men. That's statistical inevitability. It is also statistically inevitable that they will make their mistakes in more bizarrely entertaining fashion. Vive Le Difference!

US Air Force sergeant Michelle Manhart has discovered a painless way to quit her job. By doing a shoot for Playboy dressed fetchingly in her official dog-tags and a big smile, she earned herself what one would have called a "discharge" in other circumstances. I wonder if any Iraqi veterans who want out will follow her example and strip off their standard-issue armoured chuddies?

Lisa Marie Nowak is an icon. Test Pilot, astronaut, mother-of-three"""Robochick" to her colleagues at Nasa because she controlled the robotics on a Shuttle mission. Attractive and an over-achiever, Nowak drove 1,450 km wearing a disguise and adult diapers to threaten a romantic rival (also a NASA colleague) in what's being called the "Space Triangle". Charged with attempted murder and kidnapping, she said her relationship with Shuttle pilot William Oefelein was "more than a working relationship and less than a romantic one". That brings us to the burning question: will she get an endorsement deal to model the diapers?

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First Published: Sat, February 17 2007. 00:00 IST