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I had dinner recently with a friend who lives in New York. She's a top news executive with one of the big networks. She directs their global news coverage: Ebola, Islamic State, earthquakes, stuff like that. She's on call 24/7. Her last vacation is a distant memory. She has no time for kids. After our dinner, she was heading back to work.

My friend lives in Alphaville – a realm that's wide open to brainy Type-A women, but still populated overwhelmingly by Type-A men. Alphaville includes the most senior ranks of business and science, and much of Silicon Valley and high tech. It includes the math, physics, engineering and economics departments of most major universities. It includes top law firms, big media and much of federal politics, as well as big-risk, big-reward enterprises like investment banking, venture capital and hedge funds. People look at the scarcity of women in Alphaville and wonder how much progress we've really made.

Many people will dispute the assertion that Alphaville is wide open to women. Custom, prejudice, old boys' clubs, macho corporate culture, hidden barriers and negative views about women's capabilities still keep women out, they argue. The answer to these problems is more affirmative action, more mentoring, more female-friendly policies and culture, more paternal leave, and, if all that doesn't work, more quotas.

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Other people (and I am one) argue that men's and women's career preferences tend to be different. Women would rather be teachers than economists. Advocates say this problem can be partly solved by reducing stereotyping, introducing young girls to math and science, finding more female role models in STEM fields and rejecting sexist toys.

Then there's motherhood, which changes everything. Once women get on the mommy track, they're screwed. According to Facebook and Apple, the answer is to pay for women to freeze their eggs – just the kind of techno-jerky solution that software engineers are likely to come up with. The other answer, advocated by many younger feminists, is to socialize husbands to truly do their share. The revolution must begin at home.

There are good ideas in these proposals. But we've been trying them for years, and Alphaville still looks pretty male. A fascinating new study conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University helps explain why. (The full title is Life Paths And Accomplishments Of Mathematically Precocious Males And Females Four Decades Later.)

The research tracks the life trajectory of 1,630 intellectually gifted 13-year-olds – 1,037 boys and 613 girls – beginning in the 1970s. These kids were exceptionally bright. All scored in the top 1 per cent of mathematical achievement, known to be an excellent predictor of success in later life for both males and females. By the time they grew up, these kids would have meaningful, high-level career options.

Four decades later, the researchers went back for midlife follow-up. Both the men and the women, now in their 50s, have done extremely well. They are extraordinarily accomplished, high-achieving and happy. But the choices they've made, and their definitions of success, turn out to be quite different.

The men are more likely to work in technology and engineering, and to be CEOs. The women are more likely to work in general business, education and health care. (They're about equally represented in finance, medicine and law.) The men are far more intensely engaged in high-powered careers. They work long hours and make lots of money. Only two-thirds of the women work full time. The women who are married have high-earning husbands who make more than they do, and the married men have wives who make much less. Both agree that family is the most important thing in their lives.

These differences do not stem from workplace discrimination. They're rooted in different preferences, values and temperaments. The biggest gender differences concern the role of work and achievement versus family and community. The men want to make money, excel at work and make an impact. The women care more about free time and flexibility than money. What's important for them is time for family, community and friends, for "being there." Women are more socially minded. They are far more likely to agree with the statement, "It is important to me that no one goes without."

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The gifted men in this study, as you might expect, are much more individualistic and aggressive. The greatest asymmetry among men's and women's answers describes the classic techno-macho mindset that's so prevalent in Alphaville. By a wide margin, men are more likely to agree with the following statements:

  • Receiving criticism from others does not inhibit me from expressing my thoughts.
  • Discomforting others does not deter me from stating the facts.
  • Society should invest in my ideas because they are more important than those of other people.

The conundrum of Alphaville is that it is wide open to gifted women – as long as they resemble alpha men. Such women are not that common. Maybe they'll become more common in the future, as men and women feel less constrained to conform to typically gendered behaviours.

Or maybe Alphaville will change, although I think not. The world is too competitive, too global for that.

There's one more interesting conclusion in this study. The women don't feel they've been cheated or shut out. They think their lives are great. On every measure of psychological well-being, they scored about the same as the men.

What do these findings mean? Maybe that the women have been brainwashed. But the authors guess it's that "there are multiple ways to construct a meaningful, productive and satisfying life."

In other words, there's more to life than Alphaville. And that's a good thing.

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