Groups, Good Ol’ Boys, and Gangs

Some time back, I came across an article buried in one of the journals I take.  I don’t even remember the title, but it was an analysis of why women haven’t made the strides that many expected in U.S. business, especially since we’re now entering the third generation since it’s been at least technically possible for a large number of women to be considered for corporate executive positions. The author(s) discovered that, in general, women were superior to their male counterparts in every aspect of business – except one, and that one “lack” made all the difference.  What was that “lack?”  The inability to build and maintain wide-spread and growing networks and alliances.  Further, the authors also noted that this lack was prevalent even when there were enough women in an organization to do exactly that.

In a way, considering the history of the species, none of this should come as a shock.  How else could a bunch of semi-intelligent monkeys end up as the top species in a world that featured, on an individual basis, species that were tougher, stronger, faster, and more deadly?

In more recent history, say the last 6,000 years or so, more than a few examples tend to support the “male groupie” theory.  With the possible exception of Christian Science, virtually every religion that has transcended “local cult” status has been launched and networked into prominence by men.  The vast majority, if not all cultures, feature interlocked male networks, beginning in early adolescence. And failure to go along with the group, especially those groups that function as gangs, can be anything from painful to deadly, as human history has demonstrated.  What seems to get overlooked about these group dynamics, however, is that they remain predominantly if not overwhelmingly male, and that personal and physical power rather than overall ability determines the group dynamics, whether it’s a local gang or an investment bank.  Study after study has shown that tall men get more respect and more money than shorter men who are more able, and even short men get more money than more able women.  The tall guys are also generally able to build and control wider networks.

As far as business goes, there are other trends.  One is setting up structures and office politics where, somehow, especially when there are few women, they almost invariably end up being positioned [by men] in a way that they’re competing against each other, or against the only man who’s on the outs. After more than thirty years in government, business, and academia, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this scenario.

Here in Utah, we’ve just witnessed another graphic example of what happens, even when you’re male, and you go against the group, or the good ol’ boys.  Late in 2008, the Bush Administration directed the Bureau of Land Management to make 149,000 acres in Utah available for oil and gas leasing, with an auction set on December 18th, despite wide-spread environmental protests that the land was environmentally protected.  A 29 year old student, Tim DeChistopher, unable to even witness the auction unless he registered as a bidder, did in fact register as a bidder.  As a protest, he bid for parcels of land for which he could not pay, effectively keeping the lands from being auctioned off.  He was charged with fraud and disrupting the auction.  Subsequently, federal judges declared that the Bush Administration’s actions were illegal, and the Secretary of Interior withdrew the land from consideration on environmental grounds.  Even so, for two years, the federal prosecutors pursued the case, and last week the student was convicted of two felony counts for disrupting an auction declared illegal by the courts two years earlier.  Interestingly, enough, since the courts made the auction moot, in effect, Tim DeChristopher defrauded no one.  But he didn’t go along with the good ol’ boys, and he made them look bad.  That means he may go to jail, and he won’t be accompanied by any of the Bush Administration officials who also effectively violated federal law.

My favorite case along these lines was the conviction of Martha Stewart for inside trading.  She went to jail for using inside information in trying to make some extra cash on stock trades of her own stock of her own company paid for with her own money.  Should she have been convicted?  Absolutely – but why should she have gone to prison, when her offense involved mere thousands of dollars and when virtually no men convicted of the same type of offense, often involving far larger dollar sums, got much more than fines, probation, or slaps on the wrist?  And recently, more to the point, not a single man involved in all the offenses that caused the financial melt-down of the economy has been even charged, let alone convicted, or sent to prison.  Have any of the thousands who created fraudulent securities, based on fraudulent mortgages, with fraudulent ratings seen the inside of a courtroom?  No… the good ol’ boys of finance, with their interlocking networks, have sold the world a bill of goods that the financial crash was somehow an act of God [also male, in most theologies].

So Tim DeChristopher and Martha Stewart get convicted, and the executives of Goldman-Sachs get billions in bonuses.

In the end, little has changed in the last thirty years.  Despite the fact that women, according to the study, do everything better than men – except gang-mentality bullying of a slightly more refined nature, charitably called networking – they still only represent three percent of the chief executives of the thousand largest companies in the U.S., despite the fact women-run companies tend to perform better.

As for that study… I haven’t seen a single follow-up, or another mention of it or other studies along that line.  I can’t imagine why.

5 thoughts on “Groups, Good Ol’ Boys, and Gangs”

  1. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Well put 🙂

    I’ll add my own experiences, which prove absolutely nothing. My old, true joke was that my best boss was a woman — and my worst boss was a woman. That said, on average my women bosses were better — because whatever their skills, they tended to do assigned tasks more carefully than the average male boss.

    Still, my experience as a manager was that while on average my female reports were more consistent, and often better, they were less likely to take chances. I believe that this was cultural — but it was really hard to get across that stretching your capabilities beyond your comfort level was a good thing, when the woman was convinced it was not. The result was that in a serial winner-take-all workforce, women might survive better but they were less likely to “roll the dice” for a success that would take them closer to the top. I hope and believe from reports of the technology firms I cover that that mindset is going away.

    And yes, there was plenty of alpha-male misbehavior in my experiences. When I worked in the minicomputer industry in the late 1980s, it was an open secret that there was massive insider trading going on by many male execs who got stock; I can only remember one or two prosecutions. At one (pretty successful) small company, we used to joke that the really bad times were when the partners would leave together for a business trip, as when they came back they would almost invariably have a new strategy for the company that involved a sharp right turn by everyone and as often as not did not improve things. There was the firm that was set up as a pyramid scheme; that was the one where I had to scream (I left shortly thereafter) at two employees, as we were about to hire our first woman and they insisted on their right to welcome her with Playboy pinups. There was the incorrigibly cheap head of another firm, who sent one lone woman off to Japan to start a Japanese branch, I am convinced because she was paid less. Having visited that branch a few years later, I found it was incredibly hard for a woman to succeed, because of the Japanese attitude at the time towards women working at anything but bringing tea (no, I’m not kidding, at one meeting the sole female programmer had the task of bringing us tea). They called them “Christmas cake”, referring to the Christmas plum puddings that most leave mostly unfinished, meaning that they were the stale leftovers of the women who had gotten married. Yet she succeeded admirably — and, of course, came back at higher pay, and got let go in one of our boss’ succeeding fits of cheapness. And, of course, the head of the firm did just fine; when our firm failed to take off, using his old boy connections, he founded a VC firm, and when those failed in the early 2000s, moved on to a professorship.

    I do agree that in my experience, top executives do work exceptionally physically grueling schedules. However, I believe that this type of job attracts Type A personalities, who often confuse working harder with working smarter — and the “unreality bubble” created around them as powerful people who can hire or fire adds narcissism. I recently read a book that suggests that Napoleon was such a personality, and this explains much of both his tactical successes and his strategic failures.

  2. Bob Howard says:

    Regarding the networking and alliance-building, I think the author(s) of the study you cited probably hit the critical factor. I do believe that is changing as more women overcome the systemic obstacles to success and rise to managment, but the networking problem persists. Part of this is a difference in networking style. My experience has been that male alliance-building focuses exclusively on self-advancement, whereas female alliance-building is more oriented toward mutual support. Partly this is could be due to the natural tendency of the underdogs to band together for mutual protection, and partly perhaps (forgive the usupportable stereotyping) to females’ nuturing style of interpersonal relations.

    That too is changing, or so I understand from several “business sociology” articles, as more women realize they have to emulate the style of the successful male executives to succeed. How sad is that?

    As for Martha, Goldman Sachs, et al., it’s all too depressing to think about. Cynical as I might be, I truly thought the derivative-driven mortgage meltdown would at least yield real, meaningful change and effective regulation, but the news has proven me regretably wrong on that count!

  3. Doyle Frost says:

    Sir: Reread your own book THE ETHOS EFFECT. I think your answer comes in there, indirectly, of course.
    Regarding women, in general, in the workplace, or society as a whole, men have subjugated them for such an extensive period of our history, world wide, they have to get overly aggressive to take a stand, thus scaring off opportunity, especially in the business world.

  4. David Sims says:

    Martha Stewart served a short term in a federal prison in West Virginia after being convicted of lying to a government agent. She wasn’t convicted of insider trading. She’d been accused of it, and the media continued making her seem guilty of it, but her actual conviction was for lying to federal prosecutors.

    As I remember, there were two men in the stock brokerage business who were involved along with Martha Stewart. One of them, Douglas Faneuil, initially supported Ms. Stewart in her denial of insider trading, but was induced to change his testimony after federal authorities put some intimidation on him.

    Apparently, the authorities had some reason for wanting to punish Martha Stewart, and they were using an insider trading charge to achieve that end. I don’t know for certain what their motive was, but their actions show that they were not primarily interested in truth and justice in this particular case.

    The readiness of the media to misrepresent the facts of her trial and conviction to the public suggests that the media, as well as the federal prosecutors, were playing the same game. Whatever it was.

  5. I suspect the game was to convince the public that the government was prosecuting insider trading, while simultaneously suggesting to the “good ol’ boys” that the rules really didn’t apply to them. Interesting that none of the investment banking boys has ever been charged with lying and misrepresentation.

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