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Adam Grant

I read Adam Grant’s essay in the New York Times last week. I had this knee-jerk reaction that was largely negative. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to find the studies that countered Prof Grant’s thesis. But I found that I just couldn’t let it go. Some of my closest friends graduated from the Wharton School And so I know what it means to say that Prof Grant is the youngest tenured and the most popular professor. I admire him but I think he is wrong. Here is an essay that I wrote about his essay.

The National Conversation

tereotypical view of women’s influence helps nobody
Shoba Narayan
Jul 31, 2013

Last week, Professor Adam Grant of the Wharton School of Business wrote an essay in The New York Times, titled Why Men Need Women.
The essay posits that having women around makes men more empathetic, compassionate and philanthropic. As a woman and a feminist, I read the piece with both great interest and dismay.
Professor Grant is the author of the book, Give and Take. He is also the youngest-tenured and the most highly-rated professor in the Wharton School of Business’s MBA programme. His credentials, in other words, are impeccable.
Using a range of carefully-chosen studies, Professor Grant contends that male CEOs become more generous after the birth of their daughters (not sons). He argues that business titans such as Bill Gates became philanthropists because of the influence of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Having sons, he says, does not make a man more generous.
As a feminist and a woman, I should have felt happy to read about women being portrayed in such a positive way.
But I didn’t. I felt that the premise of Professor Grant’s essay was both wrong and patronising.
The CEOs he cites are all men who benefited from the influence of their wives and daughters. What about women CEOs such as Indra Nooyi and Sheryl Sandberg and the influences that their husbands and sons had on them? Or are there too few women CEOs to merit a control group in such a study?
Women may help a man donate more money, but these women, I would argue, belong to the upper echelons of society. Among the middle class and the poorer sections, it is often the opposite.
Women are often the stingier of the two sexes, the more conservative when it comes to spending, the keepers of the purse and the ones who resist making donations.
They want to make sure the household has enough. Put it down to nesting instinct. Put it down to old-fashioned maternal caution.
Men, on the other hand, are often more inclined to largesse, perhaps because they have been earning for longer periods of time – both individually and as a species.
Poor women save instead of spending. Not only that, they prevent their husbands – and quite rightly so – from spending.
It is ridiculous to suggest that because Melinda and Mama Gates influenced Bill Gates into giving away his wealth, therefore all women will influence their husbands to be more philanthropic.
According to the studies that Professor Grant cites, sisters make a man share more. I would argue that this is the case with having siblings in general.
Brothers help women lighten up and not take the world so seriously. They help make women less sensitive to hurt and prepare them for the toughness of the business world.
Studies too can be manipulated to suit a thesis. Professor Grant cites studies in which women donate more “evenly” while men go to “extremes”.
In fact, psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan suggest the opposite: that men are more inclined to the “justice” perspective while women are more inclined to the “care” perspective.
Women do soften a man; but not all women do that. Some women make a man bitter; some beat down his confidence; and some egg him on to do things that he does not want to do.
In literature and in our own lives, we have seen mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters play roles – both positive and negative – in a relationship. Not all women exude the milk of human kindness and make their men touchy-feely.
And in the end this is the trouble I have with Professor Grant’s essay. It portrays women positively – indeed, as saints – but it is a one-sided portrayal and a stereotypical one.
To suggest that women – sisters, mothers, wives and daughters – make men more compassionate and philanthropic does both sexes a disservice.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

11 comments

  1. Shoba I agree with you the article is incorrect and patronizing and mildly insulting. I sat in on a couple of his lectures a few years ago at Wharton. IMHO he is a smart guy but prone to op-ed rush sometimes. BTW you might find it interesting that he is actually a psychologist / social scientist who happens to teach at B-school. Also interesting that in his article he is quoting and interpreting someone else’s studies….

    Vaidehi – you continue to amaze and humble me with your grace and candor and insight (still remember your post on self esteem). I agree totally with your views. There are always malcontents who think everyone else is a fool but such is life. More power to you girl, please check out NOW-NYC – we could use your help if you are in the city!

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  2. I am not sure I agree with professor Grant, though I don’t have an MBA.

    It has always struck me that the richest few people, Gates, Buffett, Helu, had decided a very long time ago to donate the bulk of their estate to charitable works. I am not convinced this was because of the influence of women. Warren Buffett knew this when he studied under Ben Graham. Gates knew it when he first did his Peace Corps stint. Helu always wanted to start something in Mexico. What is striking about them is they are donating /most/ of their money to charity whereas Indian tycoons (Ambani or even Infosys) are still doing only a fraction of their net profits.

    Krishna I don’t know you well but you seem to be full of bile for anyone who lives in America or went to B-school here or says the word feminist. My hubby went to B-school here and he is not at all a “warped” genius. His colleagues and friends – many of them Harvard and Wharton grads – are in fact quite humble, curious and smart, well informed people and they don’t go mouthing off. I don’t know if you lived or worked in America or perhaps you encountered a particularly nasty person but the whole world is not like that. Also while Eelaben SEWA is quite commendable I don’t know why you feel the need to knock down Yunus or Gates or anyone else who is doing philanthropic work. The world needs not less but more philanthropy to help those in need so anyone who is doing it – more power to them.

    In the end Shoba I agree with you – we need more of women and men “needing each other” to make for better relationships and a better world.

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    1. @ Vaidehi – Interesting take. While you agree you don’t know me well, you are in such a hurry to judge. Anyways you’re in majority. Congratulations.

      I am not just against feminism, I am against over-activism of any kind. I advocate `inactivism’ of Ela ben Bhatt kind which just goes and solves a social problem without brouhaha.

      What makes you think I’m against America…? I draw 70% of my revenues from that territory. I am in love with it, lady… Give me more, please give me more…!!!

      My grudge is not against MBA’s either. My grudge is against their inadequacies and one-size-fits-all attitude that almost did monoliths like AIG and Citibank in in the not so distant past. If you’re short fed on that, do a small little google search on sub-prime crisis.

      Thanks.

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      1. Krishna – my god! The tone! How do you judge feminism to be “over activism”? (Are you an activist yourself?) How do you judge “B school archetype” as “warped genius”?
        In another post somewhere you called people idiots because they didn’t know some recipe… ?

        These are just some examples, the point is that Shoba had written that “tone” is everything. Don’t get me wrong coz I don’t know you and I didn’t judge you or call you names. But your tone can really rub people the wrong way.

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        1. Vaidehi – Mea Culpa… Sorry, that’s just my style which is a bit pointed and direct but completely innocuous. Get a load of me. Believe me, I said it in pure jest…. 🙂

          My take on activism goes like this. The world has enough din. Let’s not add to it. If possible, do something quietly for which there are enough examples out there. Elaben Bhatt was just one – She found women in distress and quietly did what she could to lift them out who now enjoy a dignified life, not just existence.. The problem with activism is that it flares up in a flash and dies out in a whimper only too soon. Whatever little that remains will be bags of ego that have long forgotten the cause for which they had started out. Worse, they will be self-serving. Think of Socialism and Marxism and what happened to the countries that experimented with these. Did their working class get any better than those in other democracies…? The biggest and the longest living of them all revolutions – Democracy – didn’t birth as a result of belligerence, It came out of peaceful accord and it survives to this day, warts and all though.

          On to your next dart. In the enterprise world, B-School archetypes are called warped geniuses on sufficient evidence. The sheer audacity to design, peddle and missell financial derivatives ( like currency swaps, CDO / CDS that too without recourse ) to unsuspecting customers without as much as road testing them for performance is but one. ( Warren Buffet calls them `WMD’ ). How else would you classify a tribe that indulges in misapplication of high end algebra and calculus (that are best suited for predicting weather patterns) on old fashioned business finance, that eventually brought down the financial world…? Their peddlers even renamed it as “financial engineering” in the process. Finally, when all those contrivances caved in, they came up with a better clarion call – Bail us out. The US government heeded the advise of Hank Paulson, then Treasury secretary, another B-School graduate who lobbied hard and bailed out Goldman Sachs(where he was CEO), Merryl Lynch, Fannie and Freddie twins, AIG and killed Lehmann Bros that rubbed him the wrong way while he was at the helm of GS – and his solution to all this …? Go print dollars – and call them QE 1,2,3…..that is still going on.

          Now check out those who dropped out of B-schools and did wonders to the enterprise world. Zuckerberg, Jobs, Gates, Dell, Ellison, Branson, Disney… I know correlation is not causation but should I be accused of bias when averages rule the day…?

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          1. and Vaidehi, I didn’t call people that didn’t know the recipe `idiots’… I called them `ignoramuses’ which is hardly pricky and completely right in that context.

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          2. Krishna I am not a finance person … but MBAs don’t always end up in finance. There are many MBAs who do great work in other areas. (Lafley of P&G for example.) Zuckerberg and Gates may have dropped out but that does not mean “dropout = success”. India had a Harshad Mehta and many others like him, but that does not make everyone in India in finance a scoundrel. Let’s not presume to paint everyone with the same brush.

            “Activism” is not “din”. There are lots of groups out here who do great work for women and children and many other causes. This is probably a cultural thing. In India perhaps “activism” means mass rallies and noise making, but here it is different. (I noticed it first hand when I joined my neighborhood watch group and thereafter we raised over $2000 for the local homeless shelter. Not huge amount but still effective.) Elaben may be doing yeoman’s work in India but that certainly doesn’t mean everyone else is “din”.

            The point was not the choice of word ‘ignoramuses’ (which is a “totally ignorant person or dunce”, synonyms dimwit and blockhead). You called the other recipe an abomination and asked the “ignoramuses” to “go get a life”. Pls don’t presume that knowing your recipe (or any other recipe) is “getting a life”. The world is a very big place. Even if jest that post was offensive and insulting.

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            1. Dropout is certainly not equal to success… But visionaries pick up weak signals early and see no purpose and hence drop out. And after that what do they do…? They go on to build something bigger that hires those who stay and passout in droves to fill up the rank and file. And then some of these hires succeed those visionaries into the corner room and wreak havoc as they did. ( Think J.P.Morgan / And lately the world over, you find 60% of those who passout are unemployable and do odd jobs to meet their basic needs. Now that should mean something…!

              I gave you examples of activism in my previous comment. Go ahead and support the neighborhood group if you feel its worth it. And sure it succeeds because there is no sign of belligerence in it. In India, we have enough such NGOs (Think Lijjat Papad, Amul) doing great work without raising noise and I do support quite a few, in my own little ways. But feminism is pure noise because instead of loving women, it stops at hating all things men. That, in my book is purposeless noise…!!!

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              1. and oh, on that expression `ignoramus’… Sadly we cohabit a world where Google rules and its powerful algorithms have brutally shrunk the gap between ignorance and erudition to all but one search moment….So why find the expression insulting…?

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  3. You nailed it, Shoba. That’s typical of the B-School archetype, that warped genius.

    They take the tiniest random sample which is not even middling and go spin a theory on the world at large. Modern day enterprise is bearing the brunt of their half baked approaches (the global economy is struggling to crawl out of the mess they helped wreak from Wall Street by stamping AAA even on toilet paper that got delivered at the reception desk) they infect their students with, who in turn go out into the world thinking that the few case studies and the excel sheet mastery is all it takes to Master Business Administration. What they never teach is the real hard grind it takes to establish a business that can eventually hire them to cast their spreadsheet models.

    I often wonder why they don’t reckon in such female oriented surveys stellar examples like Elaben Bhatt, founder of SEWA who – is a simpleton and no declared feminist thankfully – just went ahead and did what she thought the world really needed. Had they considered a few more purpose-serving examples like her, they would have helped identify what exactly nudges one into philanthropy with a more charitable perspective. In fact, Elaben had started SEWA two years before Mohammed Yunus founded Grameen Bank, is a true Gandhian and had never been into cultivating influential people who work for your Nobel Prize. Perhaps she could achieve it all because she had no excess baggage of a B-School degree or Feminist label, her bio says she’s a simple B.A, LLB from a College in Surat. Period.

    And she didn’t have to count on a Bill Gates or Sorry, Ambani as her brother to turn her dream into reality.

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