Sex wars and the city

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

There's a persistent opinion knocking around that blames the financial crisis on one small molecule: testosterone. It is testosterone, apparently, that makes traders go feral as stocks rise, taking bigger and bigger risks until Lehman Brothers happens, or someone falls out of a window.

Women, then, goes the argument, are safer traders -so let's fill trading floors with the ladies. Naturally cautious, milder creatures, they make better investors. If women ruled the world, continues the logic, getting jovial now, lighting its pipe - there would be no stock-market crashes, and probably no, like, wars, either.

The argument is, on the face of it, pro-women. After all, it's saying women are good at something; they're good at not being overconfident. But is it feminist? Not really. Broad behavioural generalisations based in biology rarely do women much good. Along with "risk aversion" goes "less competitive" and "less confident". Banking may need these traits but they aren't attractive to employers, and it's damaging to saddle an entire gender with them.

So the argument isn't particularly feminist. But perhaps more interestingly, neuroscientists are starting to find that it isn't particularly true, either. It seems risky decision-making has more to do with confidence than gender. Being a woman, evidence suggests, only affects trading behaviour
as far as it's used to deplete your confidence. If you're told your gender doesn't like risk, it's surprisingly hard to go away and bet a million on the stock exchange with the right sort of swagger.

A recent study at Stanford University took 53 men and women - some bankers, some undergraduates - and gave them 14 risky choices. In each choice, a participant could either make a punt for a high sum, with a greater risk of failing, or go for a low-risk, low-pay option. The more frequently someone chose the safe option, the more risk-averse they were judged to be.

When the experimenters brought up gender stereotypes before the trial, women became overwhelmingly more cautious, whereas men took more risks. When such stereotypes were not used, men and women performed almost equally.

For the men, just knowing that women were negatively stereotyped made them confident enough to take riskier gambits. Expose a woman to typecasting and you knock her self-belief enough to produce the opposite effect.

Swat team

How can women avoid the problem? It's quite hard. The experimenters think even the process of shrugging off stereotyping - just thinking, "Nonsense, you total knob" - robs you of just enough energy to affect your decisions. They call it "ego depletion". Swat away a couple of negative comments and your next decision is more likely to be a safe one.

The study is provocative, not least because it invites extrapolation. After all, it's a bit of a coincidence that qualities "natural" to women - trying to please people, avoiding conflict, being self-deprecating - would be equally "natural" to any dominated and therefore less confident group.

I'm tempted to make the link.

Women: not as safe as all that, Getty images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.