THE BLOG
06/06/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Why Women Apparently Just Can't Hack It on Wall Street

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Does having a baby drain away a woman's ability to effectively trade stocks and bonds? One billionaire Wall Street operative think's that the case.

Paul Tudor Jones, the head of Tudor Investment Corporation, ignited an Internet firestorm with recent remarks to an audience at the University of Virginia. He said that having a child is a "killer" for any desire to trade, adding, "as soon as that baby's lips touched that girl's bosom, forget it."

The reaction from women was immediate and outraged. Stephanie Ruhle, former managing director at Deutsche Bank, now an anchor on Bloomberg Television, fired off a zinger of a tweet:

"I am so disappointed over Paul Tudor Jones' comments on women, but I'm too busy knitting baby booties to articulate my thoughts."

The dustup harkens back to ancient and pervasive myths about women's total imprisonment by their biology. It may have seemed simply a Wall Street kerfuffle, but such comments open a door into what some powerful men are really thinking when it comes to hiring (or not hiring) women.

Such sentiments are nothing new. In the 19th century, the perceived medical wisdom was that a woman's brains and ovaries could not develop at the same time, which meant higher education for women was dangerous. Too much math, too few babies.

British psychologist Simon Barron Cohen, in his oft-cited book The Essential Difference, argues that the male brain is the "systematizing brain" while the female brain is the "empathizing" brain. Male brains, he states, are hardwired for "mastery of hunting and tracking, trading, achieving and maintaining power, gaining expertise, tolerating solitude, using aggression and taking on leadership roles."

The female brain, on the other hand, is suited for mothering, gossip, and "reading" a partner.

In a bestselling book, The Wonder of Girls, author Michael Gurian warns that too much ambition in girls and women can lead to misery. Feminism makes women unhappy. Women, he says, are driven by an "intimacy imperative" and females are propelled by their hormones. They are thus less able than men to separate emotion from reason.

Women just don't have the ambition and drive needed for success in business; instead, women are natural peacemakers.

In her bestselling book, The Female Brain, Luann Brizendine claims that "women are motivated -- on a molecular and neurological level -- to ease and even prevent social conflict."

On and on such comments go, repeated endlessly in the popular media. Google the above-mentioned "experts" and you will have to plow through pages and pages of citations.

But is all this scientifically accurate? In fact, it is not. Baron Cohen's claims were based in a study of day-old babies done in his lab, which claimed that male babies looked longer at objects and female babies looked at faces. But Elizabeth Spelke, co-director of the Mind/Brain/Behavior Inter-faculty Initiative at Harvard, points out that the study was flawed, because newborns can't hold their heads up independently. What they looked at was more a function of how their parents held them than of any "innate" sex difference. And this study is an outlier. Most studies find no differences in the way boy and girl babies relate to people or things.

As for Brizendine's claims that females are driven to resolve conflict, science journalist Robin Marantz Henig torpedoes that idea in a New York Times Magazine critique. Not only does the author indulge in inappropriate, "cutesy" language, but the science on which she bases her "facts" is flimsy indeed. The citations for the above claim, Henig writes, "come from nine scholarly articles, with no further explanation given... One study was on female mice, one on male and female rats, one (apparently) on female rhesus monkeys, and the other six on humans. But only one of those human studies explicitly mentions, 'sex differences' in the title."

This sort of junk science pervades claims about "hardwired" differences between men and women. Take Michael Gurian's assertion that ambition is lethal for women and that feminism can bring no end of misery.

There is simply no data that supports such an assertion. Quite the opposite is true, as historian Stephanie Coontz reports in a New York Times column: "A recent multiyear study by the sociologists Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske found that women who worked full time following the birth of their first child had better mental and physical health at age 40 than women who had not worked for pay. " And, in a federally funded study of women ages 35 to 55, directed by Dr. Rosalind Barnett of the Women's Studies research center at Brandeis, the women with the best overall well-being were married women in high prestige jobs who also had children. (The study was the basis of our book Life Prints.)

High-achieving women are not miserable because they are rejected by men, as Gurian implies. Today, the more education a woman has, the more likely she is to marry. And college educated women are less likely than other women to divorce.

Is it true that women lack the toughness and assertiveness that would make them successful in business? No. One study of 41,000 executives, reported in BusinessWeek, found that women proved to be somewhat more high-handed than the male executives. "If your boss is a Ms., don't automatically expect her decision-making to be warm and fuzzy," the magazine warns.

There is simply no reliable evidence that women are physically or psychologically unfit for leadership and accomplishment, or that success in business will make them miserable. It is not true that women are so hormone-driven that a baby's touch will obliterate everything else in life, especially a desire to achieve.

But, rooted as such sentiments are in cultural history, popular belief and bad science -- don't expect them to disappear any time soon.

Caryl Rivers is the co-author, with Dr. Rosalind C. Barnett, of the forthcoming book "The New Soft War on Women," to be published by Tarcher-Penguin.

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