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What if men and women really do want different things?

Why don't more women run big companies? Why is there no female Bill Gates? Why do so few women go into politics?

These were the questions posed by this week's Globe and Mail series on women in power. The series focused on the dramatic gender gap at the top of the pecking order. Why, in an age of alleged equality of opportunity, when young women are getting university degrees at nearly twice the rate of men, aren't more women running stuff?

The situation - and the explanations for it - haven't really changed in 10 or 15 years. Invariably, everyone agrees that until we find better ways to get women in top power spots, society is wasting an enormous amount of human potential.

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Well, maybe. Or maybe not.

After 30 years of gnawing at this question, I've come to two conclusions. The first is that the usual explanations for the power gap - subtle stereotyping, networks that unintentionally exclude women, female-unfriendly work cultures, etc., etc. - are true, but also pathetically inadequate. The second is that no matter what we do, most of the world's most powerful institutions will continue to be mostly run by men for the foreseeable future.

This week, I ran across a blog posting by Penelope Trunk, a talented young entrepreneur who started a web-based company in Madison, Wisc. In it, she explains that although she has decided to move her company to Washington, D.C., she's not going with it. I believe her story tells you more about women and power than a dozen Catalyst surveys.

"It's weird to be the founder of a company and not be where all the action of the company is. But honestly, I'm relieved," she writes. "There is good evidence that you have to be crazy to do a startup … Because you are not likely to make money - you are likely to die broke. And you work insane hours - longer than any other job - and you do it over and over and over again. This is not sane.

"...[T]ere is a mania that entrepreneurs exhibit that is very attractive to investors," she continues. "The trick is to make sure you're investing in someone who is on the border of insane, but not insane."

Ms. Trunk is staying behind in Madison because she got married to a farmer and has two young kids. This life is not compatible with borderline insanity. "It's hard to not be the centre, but I want to be the centre of my family," she writes.

Her blog drew an avalanche of response, some of it quite hostile. "Stop stereotyping female entrepreneurs," demanded a female entrepreneur, writing in Forbes. "Articles like this are at best insulting to both women and men, and at worst dangerous ammo that perpetuates the stereotype that women are unfit to be entrepreneurs. It's called subtle sexism, and it unravels the tremendous progress society has made toward the goal of gender equality."

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But what if men and women really do want different things? Might that - rather than sexism - help explain the fact that few female entrepreneurs are backed by venture capitalists? As Ms. Trunk writes: "Really, you could tell that story on one page: Startups move at break-neck pace, under a lot of pressure to succeed bigger and faster than any normal company. And women don't want to give up their personal life in exchange for the chance to be the next Google."

Human nature is malleable. But on the whole, female ambition really is different from male ambition. Women want challenging work, so long as it's compatible with having close personal relationships. By contrast, a fair number of men are driven to succeed, no matter what. This relentless will to dominate and win is at least as much hormonal as it is cultural. It is fuelled by testosterone, and it also explains why some men are willing to take insane risks. Men are far more likely than women to wind up as either millionaires or roadkill.

Meantime, a million years of evolution have hard-wired women to be risk-averse, for obvious reasons: If they're not around, their babies will die. Risk aversion is extremely useful for raising children, as well as for making sure the food gets on the table and that society proceeds in an orderly and humane manner. These are not small things. Civilization would survive quite well if something wiped out half the men. If half the women were wiped out, civilization would probably collapse.

Culture can shape behaviour quite profoundly - within limits. Despite those alluring rumours of Amazons and matriarchies, every human culture known to exist has been dominated by men. So why are we so shocked that we haven't managed to totally rewire the sexes in 50 years?

So, has anything changed in the past decade or two? Actually, quite a lot. More and more women are leading major institutions, such as universities and public-sector agencies, where collaboration is the key. They make up more than half the new doctors and lawyers - professions that, not incidentally, give them plenty of flexibility to raise a family. In the U.S. (though not, regrettably, in Canada), politics is increasingly filled with female powerhouses - Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Meg Whitman, and (choke) Sarah Palin. Your own smart and motivated daughters will probably be able to achieve almost anything they set their minds on - if they want it badly enough.

And if they wind up wanting something else? I won't get fussed. There are many ways of contributing to the human project. Being boss is just one of them.

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More

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