Oxytocin and The “Self-Imposed” Glass Ceiling

I read a rather interesting article published in The Times last week, about Susan Pinker’s new book, about the hormone oxytocin.

It talks about a lady who was offered a high-powered promotion in her company, but turned it down because the position would destabilise her family. This sounds like a perfectly reasonable basis for turning down a job to me. Afterall, it was personal choice, right? The interesting thing is that she felt that she needed to explain herself. Why?

I believe that the objective of feminism was to give women the choice and freedom to do what they wanted in life. The whole point was to avoid imposing the lifestyle that societal stereotypes traditionally demand of women.

However, if that were really true, such women who choose to look after the interests of their family first, would not (and should not) have to justify themselves.

The central point of the article was that the supposed glass ceiling in the workplace is partly self-imposed by women themselves. According to The Times:

  • 60% of gifted women turn down promotions or take positions with lower pay.
  • A study in the States showed that 1 in 3 women with MBAs chose not to work.
  • 38% turned down a promotion.

Part of the blame for wayward feminism must surely be attributed to Germaine Greer. In The Female Eunch, she asserted that: “only when women took on men’s roles would they truly be equal.”

This is surely denial of female identity. Feminism gives women equal rights and a voice; it does not mean that they have to take on men’s roles. In today’s society, even though women have the same rights that men do, we see that many are not making the choice to act exactly as the men around them.

However, I say that the difference is not a weakness. It is a strength. The conclusion of the article seems to me, to be a rather obvious one: that men and women are not the same, even suggesting that “there are distinctive design elements in female brains that evolved to promote the survival of infants.”

Of course there are different design elements. Surely, the conclusion that women are better equipped to nurture children than their male counterparts is no surprise. But is it something that they should apologise for? Of course not.

The idea that society now seems to be imposing on women, that they should feel guilty for putting their family first, is not only unfair, it is also far removed from the original objectives of the feminist movement. The fact that women have some natural maternal extinct, does not imply that they are any less capable of competing with men in the work place.

Oxytocin is another important driver of female behaviour, as it helps people to read emotions in other people’s faces. However, rather than concluding that this means that “girls are wired not to win,” consider Bob Sutton’s piece on female superstars. Sutton’s research concludes that firms should hire female superstars, as they are far more “portable”; they build on external relationships, which they take with them, so perform well at their new firm. Men, on the other hand, tend to perform worse at their new firm.

If oxytocin allows women to build trust and external relationships, that’s surely an advantage in the work place. Surely, then, the conclusion must be not to deny that women are different from men, but to change our perspective and stop making women feel guilty about choosing a lifestyle that puts their family first.

I would love to hear your comments or personal experiences of “the glass ceiling” in the work place. Do you think enough has been done to progress women’s rights in the workplace, and do you think the glass ceiling is, at least partly self-imposed?



  1. Aruni · February 19, 2008

    It’s so true that people often forget one of the results of feminism should be we have a choice and we shouldn’t feel bad about making that choice or look down on other women for making a choice. Things have improved but we still have a ways to go. Large companies are realizing that flexible hours are necessary to retain talent…male or female!

  2. evolution · February 19, 2008

    Hi Aruni,

    I totally agree – I recently attended a trends briefing and one thing they talked about was our increasingly feminised culture. In that sort of environment, surely traditional feminine characteristics are advantageous. We’re moving away from the very masculine culture of the 1980’s, but it seems companies have been slow to reflect that.

    If women want to have a career and family, then companies should be a bit more flexible. We shouldn’t have to make women or men pay a price for wanting to put their family first.

  3. aamer · February 20, 2008

    It’s refreshing to hear your take on this. I’ve always felt that the real goal of feminism should be to allow women to have opportunities, but not to impose a lifestyle that they don’t want.

    The western mindset tends to impose a vision of freedom and independence that others in the world may not necessarily share. In promoting equality, we should understand that different people and different cultures do not always share our ideals. Success does not have a universal definition.

  4. Drue · February 20, 2008

    Hi Aliya,
    Your posts are always very in depth. Great to hear talented voices like yours shine in the wonderful but (mainly male-dominated) blogosphere.

  5. evolution · February 20, 2008

    Thanks! We female bloggers need to stick together! Great interview with Tim Draper on ValleyZen by the way!

    Thanks for commenting. I agree that success means different things to different people – that’s what makes the world great and inspirational.

    I agree that feminism is ultimately about choice, and it is hypocritical to give women freedom and independence and then criticise them for their choices in life.

    In terms of Western mindsets, I would argue that the mindset in some other cultures does not allow women to make their own choices about lifestyle. In some male-dominated cultures, values are imposed on women, so we cannot say whether women in these cultures share Western ideals or not since they have never been given that opportunity. Of course, things are changing, and I believe economic progress will hopefully lead to further independence and opportunities for women.

    Relating this to my earlier post about Muhammad Yunus, the fact that Grameen largely lends to women is very inspirational. It empowers women to make choices for their household, which in a very-male dominated society, they never would have the opportunity to do so.

    Have you read Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom? I would highly recommend reading it, if you haven’t done so already.

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