Do real friendships hold women back?

10th February 2006 at 00:00
More women may be climbing the greasy poles of their professions, but few make it to the top. The latest annual sex and power survey from the Equal Opportunities Commission found women make up only 11 per cent of the directors of FTSE 100 companies, 9 per cent of the senior judiciary, 10 per cent of the higher echelons of the police and 20 per cent of Parliament.

Why is it that young women do not chase senior roles? Perhaps they believe it's "lonely at the top", with no friends or close colleagues?

More women than men also suffer from depression. Many researchers focus on the fact that this gender difference in mental health seems to emerge after puberty, a finding which makes it tempting to put the contrast - which continues throughout life - "down to hormones".

However, psychiatrists David Goldberg and Ian Goodyer suggest that the centre of action in terms of mental health is an area neglected by psychiatrists - friendship. They say that in adolescence marked differences emerge in the same-sex friendship patterns of boys and girls. Girls'

conversation with friends tends to be more emotional, while boys are more reserved. But the emotionality of the language girls use may put more strain on their friendships; in other words, they may demand more of their friends than boys do.

In their new book, The Origins and Course of Common Mental Disorders (Routledge), Goldberg and Goodyer point out that girls are more prone to broken friendships in the longer term than boys. Perhaps these disappointments pose risks for depression, and perhaps boys are protected by their preference for more solitary interests. The authors note that a friendless boy could have more mental health resilience than a friendless girl. It might also be women's dependency on friendship that holds them back.

Maybe the key skill to learn at school is how to make friends and influence people because, on leaving, it seems to be who, rather than what, you know that helps you get on. Look at London clubs such as The Reform and The Athenaeum, where many men (it is mostly men) have networked their way up in their careers. Female disinterest in this kind of socialising - it's not friendship - raises the question of whether this is holding them back. Then again, I recently had lunch with one female editor at The Athenaeum and, observing that she was the only woman there, asked why women didn't appear to share the male interest in clubs. "Raj," she replied, "women are a club."

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry, and director of the Centre for Public Engagement, King's College London.

His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email:

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