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Gender Elephant in the Gladwell's Outlier Living Room

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success puts to rest many of the diehard notions we all have about who succeeds, who doesn't and why. Gladwell calls icons of success "outliers." I call them "Folks With Penises," people statistically more apt to have been born male. I guess it wouldn't fly to call a book, Penis: The Most Important Key to Success. Gladwell asks the reader of Outliers to identify discernible patterns in his list of outliers, without mentioning gender specifically. It's truly flabbergasting.

Don't get me wrong. I admire Gladwell. He has made a profound difference in how our culture can view context as distinct from content. However, to completely miss gender as a formative element of success is thoroughly weird. I can't even guess at motivation.

I admire Gladwell's talent for deconstructing so-called "conventional" wisdom. His first book's title, "The Tipping Point" has become a commonly used phrase to define what social scientists called "critical mass," the point at which something -- an idea or product -- becomes part of the culture because enough people know about it.

Outliers contains the phrase "squandered talent" in Gladwell's conclusion to describe one-third of a social experiment involving the "Termites." Termites is a label that an early 20th century Stanford University professor of psychology, Lewis Terman, used for the genius IQ boys he studied. Dr. Terman tracked their life-long achievements in work, family and finances. Terman was convinced their superior IQs would make them all succeed. Terman was wrong. More than anything, it was the young genius' class expectations and home-life that determined their accomplishments. The "Termites" were divided into the A, B and C groups. The C group geniuses, the underachievers who lacked educated parents encouraging them to excel, came out on the bottom. White, straight males fail too if they are not nurtured to win. In Outliers, Gladwell concludes of the C group that -- and I think rightly so -- "...they lacked something that could have been given to them if we'd only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world. The Cs were squandered talent. But they didn't need to be."

That very statement brings me to the "elephant" in Gladwell's book. Gender is the massive elephant that Gladwell either ignores, dismisses or is utterly blind to -- for me, a shocking disregard for the success and failure rates of half the human race. If he doesn't see that "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl" has a major impact on the success rates of people, not only domestically but internationally, Gladwell does not have enough improper "uppity" women in his life steering him toward some good old-fashioned "consciousness raising."

Successful women in Outliers are utterly conspicuous in their absence, and there is never even a nod toward them being MIA. While his one example of a young woman is token and implies what's going on with success ratios, Gladwell truly squanders his talent for explicitly pointing at an element of society that impacts us all: the under-achievment of women, especially in public life. He also fails to point toward race and sexual orientation, other fundamental factors in opportunity to succeed in a primarily white male heterosexually dominant world in the U.S. It's not "proper" to be anything but the dominant white, straight or female in the world of success with some glaring exceptions which prove the rule.

Here's a small example from my own life: I cloak identity, because this is not about an individual character flaw but about cultural mores relevant to success for females. An ordinarily loving and intelligent relative of mine -- I'll call her Eve -- confronted me for being an embarrassment within the family because I'm so "ambitious," i.e., improper. She's of another generation where domesticity and compliance in white middle class females is highly valued. For the first time in history, many women of my generation -- a tipping point -- were challenged to question authority, including compliant females and dominating males. We set out intentionally to be "improper" women. My generation's behavior could have landed Eve's contemporaries into highly disadvantageous circumstances. What I was doing was downright dangerous in their eyes. Gladwell emphasizes the very long shadows that class, ethnicity and even the year of one's birth throw on a person's ability to succeed -- but on gender? Silence.

Eve's class and generation of women did not lack ambition. They were ambitious within proper feminine context: finding good marriages, running a beautiful home, being well-groomed, etc. Also, I was the last of 3 daughters and the last chance for my father to raise a son. He resigned himself to a son substitute: me. I was praised for being a "tomboy," (a sexist phrase, but that's another column) and nurtured for bucking authority and being ambitious, just like a boy. Indeed, I went to law school and passed the California Bar. However, they did not prepare me for the world and the overt and covert problems I would encounter -- personally and professionally -- with gender bias. For the most part, gender bias/bigotry is practically invisible and the person who spotlights it is not rewarded but often ostracized.

In Outliers, even Gladwell's own story is missing the gender lens. His grandmother had twin daughters: if she had also had a son, it's probable that Gladwell's grandmother would have understandably put her survival eggs in the son's basket, and not the twin daughters. Gladwell's own highly educated mother made sure that he and his brothers did very, very well.

Public challenge to Malcolm Gladwell: examine the "glass ceiling," the long shadow cast by both rich and poor men's forms of primogeniture. He's a successful enough male to actually get a book published about the cost of sexism in our talent pool. I double dog dare Gladwell to write his next book about our waste of females as agents of change. Everyone in the international development community knows that when we empower females, everyone gains ground. Unless we stop squandering the talents of girls and women, we're apt to destroy our own world from the very real dangers of gender imbalance.