Bad for the Game: Women, Work, and Hockey

Bad for the Game: Women, Work, and Hockey

If you hang around here much, you know that I geek out about the complex issues surrounding women and the workplace.

I read the studies, watch the trends, follow the stats. Like this one: the number of women age 20 and older who are not in the labor force has soared in recent years. Many of these women leave the workplace by choice.

For many years, I’ve believed that this choice was fine and good, highly individual, and nobody’s fault.

I’m changing my mind.

I’m starting to think these women are like Canadian youth hockey players.

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In his excellent book Outliers (seriously, read it), Malcolm Gladwell describes how the playing field isn’t level in Canadian hockey. The system–however inadvertently–is rigged to favor certain kids over others, and it has little to do with skills. Gladwell calls it the “iron law of Canadian hockey:”

“In any elite group of hockey players–the very best of the best–40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December.”

It starts when they’re young: at the age of 9 or 10, the “best” players get filtered out for traveling teams. At this age, the “best” players are often the oldest players: they’re a little bigger, a little more coordinated, a little more mature. The eligibility cutoff is January 1, and the ranks of Canadian hockey are packed with first quarter birthdays. It’s not a coincidence.

For years, no one even realized it was happening. Canadian hockey was thought to be a strict meritocracy. But the lopsided rosters confirm that’s not the case.

To Gladwell, Canadian hockey is more than an interesting case study. It’s a warning against hidden advantages and unfair systems, because the effects of not recognizing them are serious:

“Take a look again at that roster for the Czech Republic soccer team. There are no players born in July, October, November, or December, and only one each in August and September. Those born in the last half of the year have all been discouraged, or overlooked, or pushed out of the sport. The talent of essentially half the Czech athletic population has been squandered.”

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In her TED talk (aptly titled “Why we have too few women leaders”), Sheryl Sandberg lays out the current figures on women in the workplace:

Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. The numbers tell the story quite clearly: 190 heads of state, 9 are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13% are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top….tops out at 15-16%.”

The issues are complicated, she explains. In many ways, women hold themselves back, but that’s not the whole story. No, in order to understand why women aren’t making it to the top in any profession–why they’re exiting the workforce in droves–we have to understand this: “The data shows one thing: success and likeability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women.

The system is broken.

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What’s the upshot? Why does this matter?

There is a problem with any group that squanders the talent of half its members, especially if it doesn’t even realize it’s doing it.

Canada continues to crank out elite hockey players, despite the league’s inefficiencies. Could Canadian hockey be even better if it drew from the whole age spectrum and not just the first quarter birthdays? Gladwell thinks so. The current system is not only unfair for fourth quarter birthdays; it’s bad for the game.

And so it goes in the workplace.

To quote my high school teacher, this is a generality and all generalities are false, but very generally speaking, women bring a whole host of gifts to the table that men don’t. The workplace–and the world–needs women to show up, to bring their female perspective to the table.

I agree with Sandberg when she says, “I think that a world that was run where 50% of our countries and 50% of our companies were run by women would be a better world.”

Or, put another way by Nicholas Kristof, Lehman Brothers might still be around today if it were Lehman Brothers & Sisters.”

What does this look like in real life? How do we repair our broken systems? I have no idea. But the process must begin with awareness, and move on to resolve.

Our system–our society–needs fixing. It won’t be easy. It will be complicated. But it’s worth doing.

I’m convinced of it.

I love you guys. Let me have your thoughts on this beast of an issue. Do you relate to my old belief, or my new one? Are you in process? Tell us all about it in comments. 

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