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Venus and Mars, and whether men and women win differently

Posted on 15 March 2015 | 6:03pm

(This blog first appeared on


Having been Tony Blair’s spokesman and strategist for a decade and more, having been at his side through election campaigns, wars and peace processes, political and personal crises, scandals galore, having spent thousands of hours facing down possibly the most questioning media on the planet, and having done thousands of talks and interviews since leaving TB’s side, I am very experienced in answering difficult questions.

But right now, I am struggling and I thought a little bit of crowd sourcing with the highly intelligent men — and especially the women — who visit might help. This is something I would never have considered before the advent of the blogosphere and social media, but where better now to start than at the home of the likes of Christiane Amanpour and Becky Anderson.

So here is the situation. As you might know from a chat I had on CNN with Christiane last month, I have written my 11th book. It is called “Winners: And how they succeed.” It looks at hyper-achievers in sport, business and politics, interviews some of the biggest and most successful names alive — and analyses some who are dead — and tries to draw general lessons for all of us.

It is going very well thank you. Not least thanks to media interest and a host of events, at which it has been snapped up variously at gatherings for students, business people, football fans, environmentalists and political activists, it went within four days of publication to Number 1 in the UK hardback non-fiction charts.

I would be lying — something I am not prone to do whatever the haters may say — if I said I was not seriously chuffed about this. As my former Downing Street colleague, now of Portland PR, Steve Morris, said at the launch: “If you write a book called ‘Winners’ and it goes straight to the charity shops, don’t be surprised if people call you a loser.” Fear of failure being a bigger driver for most of my interviewees than any joy in success, this was not something I was prepared to allow.

So what is the problem as I look down from the top of the Sunday Times charts at those reviewers who said it was awful? (I would incidentally have preferred no stars in the Mail on Sunday to the one that they gave me. Please take note for next time.)

The problem is women, or more precisely how I talk about them. At every single one of the nine or so events I have so far done about the book, and in several of the many interviews, I have been asked — usually but not always by a woman — a version of this same question: “Do men and women win in different ways?”

And I don’t really know what to say. So help me please CNNLand.

At the first event, hosted by the Financial Times, my partner Fiona and my daughter Grace were sitting in the front row, squirming as I told how I had written a chapter on the Queen, named German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the most impressive current political leader, interviewed and profiled U.S. Vogue editor Anna Wintour as my main voice on leadership, done the same with Arianna Huffington as a great innovator, talked to gymnast Nadia Comaneci about her “perfect 10,” and presented Paralympian athlete and Tanni Grey-Thompson and Australian surfer Layne Beachley as two of the best interviews about resilience.

As Grace said afterwards — well to be honest she heckled me at the time with the words “shut up Dad, this is embarrassing,” — I was answering a question I had not been asked, namely “why aren’t there more women in the book?’ rather than the one I had been asked, “do men and women win in different ways?”

At my next outing, in front of the amazingly bright international postgrad students at Hult International Business School, with Grace not there to heckle, but Fiona sitting three yards from me, the same question came again almost word for word. As the above names were reeled out once more I sensed I needed something more than a list. I needed an argument, the likes of which I used to specialize in framing and honing.

So I waffled a bit about glass ceilings and how Fiona’s generation had won the battle for women’s equality in the eyes of the law but Grace’s generation needed to win the battle in terms of the culture of the land.

I thought that was quite good, and dare I say a rather decent soundbite. But moderator René Carayol clearly didn’t agree and handed his microphone to Fiona to ask her for her view. She said it was still a man’s world and women had essentially to do twice as many jobs as men. Men also didn’t appreciate either that reality, or that it therefore becomes harder for a woman to win than a man in many sets of circumstances.

She got a round of applause before the twitterati took to social media to say she had put me in my place. The row in the car on the way home was reasonably good-natured, considering my partner of 36 years was basically confirming I was not a new man and suggesting I talked absolute tosh about whether men and women win in different ways.

At my next event, a Labour fundraiser, thankfully neither Fiona nor Grace could make it. So when the same bloody question came up again I started off with my list of names but stupidly mentioned the Queen first promoting a left-leaning chorus of “for heaven’s sake she is hardly typical,” so that by the time I got to Fiona’s point, I was struggling again. God knows what would have happened if I had said Margaret Thatcher was in there, in the section comparing her leadership to David Cameron’s (sic).

But here is the thing. Afterwards a woman who shall be nameless — but she does work for Harriet Harman, the chief architect of Labour’s new feminism and the proud leader of the pink campaign bus tour (which I love by the way) — said this to me: “You have to come back and do more in the campaign. Because I think there is something of a crisis of masculinity in UK politics right now.”

In other words there’s me trying to get the right answer to a question that has genuinely been troubling me, and an arch feminist says I need to do more of the Alpha Male thing. You can’t win, said I.

So come on. Help me. This question has come up everywhere I have been. I have more events to do. I have more interviews. And the next time I sit down with CNN’s woman winners, Christiane or Becky, I need to have a better answer than the ones I have been deploying thus far.

Free signed book and invite to a future event for the best suggestion. Either here in the UK now or in what I believe Americans call the fall when it comes out there.

  • Fabric

    Maybe it’s not whether they win in different ways but whether they wish to. The alpha male thing often carries with it a need to constantly prove your superiority publicly. Personally I can’t be bothered with all that, I know if I am better at a task or not and it really doesn’t fuss me if a man wants to stomp around proclaiming otherwise.

    • Ehtch

      To me, a matriarch and an alpha male are forged from the same die. Social adeptness is the secret to win. Knew many social matriarchs, most I got on well with, but a few scared the living bejesus out of me…

  • Chris Wallace

    I think the unfortunate fact that women face more obstacles and difficulties, means there are probably more aspects and contributing factors to their success. Whether its unconscious, or conscious, discrimination from a would-be employer. There being fewer women, than men, in positions of seniority in business for which young women can look to emulate or aspire to be like. Or the inferior standing which female sport holds, compared to male, in the eyes of the media and a sizeable portion of the public.
    I think more so than men, women need an unwavering drive and determination to know that they are competing as the underdog. They very often don’t face a level playing field. They succeed despite the lack of encouragement and support which many male counterparts receive as a product of our current cultural bias.
    I think they do win differently, and do succeed differently. They became winners through great effort and sacrifice, remarkably hard work and inspiring talent, as all winners do. But they also became winners knowing they have traversed terrain and overcome hurdles which many others were fortunate enough not to face. And in that respect I think their success is all the more impressive.

  • Ehtch

    Best to start with “We are different, and there is nothing anyone can do about that, so let’s go from that starting point…” Blindness to that fact in some, of both sexes, is the stumbling block. The territory should include that in it’s make-up, and go from there. A brain and/or physical ability is just that, in anyone, whether you are a five foot man, or a six foot plus lady netball player.

  • Michele

    Winning and leading aren’t the same thing are they? It’s usually easier for a woman to manage the first than the second imho.

    I’m not sure many women are so fond of herds.
    Having said that, it’s noticeable that most of the winning women you’ve mentioned have become parts of their Dads’ empires.

    What’s not often mentioned about M Thatcher’s time at Oxford is that she was rejected at interview but failed applications had to be reviewed when so many of her cohort were conscripted (depths of WWII).

    Are women also less prone to being part of a clique? I really can’t think of any examples of women behaving like this lot (or being bothered by their exclusion).
    There are some funny comments in the blog below it 😉

  • KDouglas

    Come on, Alastair – this book is written by a man for other men. I don’t see a single woman mentioned in the screen shot of your book here. The women you have chosen are very odd choices as well. Might be a good idea to write a sequel putting this right.

  • Spencer Hudson

    Rather than asking about the differences in the ways men and women win. Perhaps we can take a slightly oblique tack, think more of the ways in which we approach and achieve goals. We start from different positions, with different priorities. These perspectives are engrained and so long as they are the end results will be skewed. We need open and analytic thinking , we have the tools not to objectively judge performance and not let our bias get in the way.

    just an idea

  • Michele

    Sarah Vine – is she a winner or a performer?
    Ex-Wail, now apparently Times.

    I’d not read anything of or much about her till seeing the scurrilous crap spouted in the past ten days which make me wonder how proud she must be of not fancying something I’m sure she pronounces ‘sapper’ chez Milibands (because of their back garden’s little kitchen).

    Is she really the same person that apparently wrote this about a year ago:
    ‘…………….you shouldn’t judge people by their clothes, or where they live……………’ eh?

    Wake up Mrs Gove.

  • reaguns

    Can / do / should women win in different ways? Well I think of the headmistress of my school. She was tough, she was smart, she was stern, though certainly not heartless. I don’t think she was any different to a tough man in the same position, and perhaps she is one of many examples from childhood which have meant that it never occurred to me that women wouldn’t be considered leaders / managers / ceos / equals etc till I started hearing about “feminists” prattling on about this in my teens.

    I have seen other women who try to be like men. I am not sure this works.

    I think there are obviously ways in which women can win which men throughout the ages have known and succumbed to, but mentioning these doesn’t tend to please the feminists. However it is well known the Iron Lady was as skilled at the softer arts of flirtation as any.

    But generally speaking I think my headmistress wasn’t a bad example to follow. Perhaps a little bit similar to Merkel, though Merkel is calmer and less abrasive, because Merkel’s inner reserves of strength and intelligence are greater still.

  • reaguns

    Ps I am aware my last answer was not really an answer, because I don’t have one.

  • reaguns

    I do recommend “lean in” by Sheryl Sandberg for those who have not read it already and am looking forward to “Hot Feminist” by Polly Vernon.