When being a woman is the least remarkable thing

Carole connects the differences in men’s brains and women’s brains with the winner of the economics Nobel prize over a bowl of porridge

When I headed downstairs for breakfast this morning, I was confronted with two competing actions:

One was to engage with the story on the radio of Professor Esther Duflo, who has just been announced winner of the economics Nobel prize – making her the youngest winner overall and only the second woman ever to be awarded it

The other was to click a video link on my phone to something that promised to be “hilarious”

No prizes – from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences or otherwise – for guessing which one won.

Men’s brains vs women’s brains

So, over my porridge, I was treated to a couple of minutes of a male US comedian riffing on the subject of “men’s brains vs women’s brains”. And, once I’d got over the 1970s-throwback mother-in-law jibe, it was pretty amusing. In a nutshell, the premise was that men’s brains consist of many little boxes all for a different topic but none of them touching. Women’s brains, on the other hand, are a seething mass of wires, likened to the internet superhighway, where everything is connected and nothing is forgotten. The comedian puts his all into the delivery and into poking fun at both genders’ tendencies, and the result is something that, I think, resonates with most people (my husband wasn’t impressed – but that’s just him!).

I am compelled at this point to make clear that, when it comes to the old ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, I nearly always come down on the side on nurture – I simply don’t want to believe that men and women are born with their brains set a certain way. But I’m never 100% convinced of my position and am happy to let the neuroscientists and psychologists fight this one out in a (literal) battle of the minds until someone is proved incontrovertibly right. What I am sure of, however, is that we are in a place in our society where a man’s way of thinking in certain sectors is the accepted way and that women have, to date, had to bend their own way of thinking to fit.

More men than women are awarded grants

On this subject, I was fortunate enough in one of my recent ‘Women save, men invest’ workshops to have in attendance a 22-year-old post-graduate science student from Cambridge university. I say ‘fortunate’ because getting someone so young interested in the subject of investing and long-term finance is, in my book, something of a coup. Within our discussion on how the language of investing has historically been male in its flavour (necessarily so, because it was the men who had control of the money), this wonderful young woman said something startling.

In a talk recently for female post-grad science students such as herself, she was told that:

“Science grants – already difficult to obtain – are still being given to more men than women. Even though the applications are anonymous.”

Wow. How is that even possible?

The way she explained it was that there remained a legacy from the days when only men were judging the all-male applicants for science grants. From this, a certain way of presenting a research idea had taken hold as the ‘right way’. This was proving hard to shake off. So, where a man might approach his application with a flourish of ‘Here I am, look at me’, a woman is more inclined to present with a mindset that says ‘Look at what this can do’. The granters of the grants are programmed to be more impressed by ‘Here I am’ because those were the ones that stood out in the all-male crowd in the past. And so, the old way is perpetuated.

Attempts to get women interested in investing are not really working

The issue of male-ness in the language and presentation used by the financial services industry is one of my pet topics. Readers of my first blog – and anyone who has attended one of my workshops – will know that my mission is to carve a financial advice service that actively invites women to get engaged (hence the workshops). This, in part, is because I don’t think the direct attempts by the big banks and insurance companies to get women more interested in investing are really working.

Women just aren’t playing ball

If you start digging around the subject of women and investing you will see what I mean. Big Finance is swimming in a sea of surveys into the reasons why women just aren’t playing ball. There are surveys on whether we are driven by specific objectives, statistics about how interested we are in ethical or sustainable investing, focus groups looking at how fearful we are of not understanding. And so on. And so on.

Everything is connected

What the industry is fundamentally missing goes back to the comedian I shared my breakfast with this morning. For whatever reasons – be they biological or societal – in a woman’s brain, everything is connected. So, trying to engage us in what we have for so long perceived as a male-dominated arena by presenting unconnected facts and figures without proper attempts to help us understand how it all fits into our lives is simply not going to work.

To me, it stands to reason that, when a female scientist is presenting her ideas to a grant-giving organisation, she will want to show how her research can affect the world. That, presumably, is why she does the job she does. Equally, when a woman is shown performance figures of an investment fund, her connected brain will instantly link the amounts of money involved to what that actually means for her, for her family, the life she leads, the people she associates with and, potentially – if she is thinking about investing sustainably –  the whole planet.

It’s no surprise that Professor Duflo is a woman

And this is the point where I connect you, my lovely Readers, back to Nobel-prize winning Professor Duflo (you didn’t really think I’d forgotten her, did you?). When I finally got around to listening to this news story, I realised that, what is remarkable about the win is not the fact that she is the youngest winner of the prize or that she is only the second woman to be awarded it. No, it is the fact that she and her team do not constrain themselves in their thinking within an intellectual box labelled ‘economics’. Instead, they concentrate their efforts on the practical implications of economic studies – such as improving education and healthcare in areas where poverty acts as a hindrance to these goals.

This is a connected approach. And so, to my mind, it is no surprise that Professor Duflo, winner of the Nobel prize for economics, is a woman. What is remarkable is that such prestige has been conferred on the approach itself. Well done to the team, and well done to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences!

15 October 2019