Heavy rain poured. Winds gusted at 25 miles per hour. The cold temperatures refused to rise. And still, 11,604 women crossed the finish line of the 2018 Boston Marathon. In fact, overall, only 3.8% of women running did not complete the race, as compared to 5% of men. In good conditions, men drop out of marathons at lower rates than women, but in this year’s rain and cold, men’s dropout rates were up 80% from the previous year, while women’s were up only 12%. It is clear that female runners had persisted in the face of adverse weather conditions better than male runners had, but it is not entirely clear why.
A recent article in the New York Times examined this very question: Why, despite the miserable conditions, did women persevere and finish this year’s Boston Marathon at higher rates than their male counterparts? The article offered a myriad of potential explanations, many of which involved psychological reasons rather than physical characteristics, including that the decision to drop out may be connected to pain tolerance. Women who have experienced childbirth prior to running a marathon, and have thus experienced severe pain, may have a higher perception of their ability to endure the agony of a difficult race. It has also been shown that women are better than men at pacing themselves, and so may be better equipped to recalibrate expectations based on circumstances. In the case of the marathon, female runners may have been more likely to adjust their goal from finishing in a specific amount time to simply crossing the finish line. Women also tend to be caregivers and community-oriented, and are more likely to reach out to offer support and, in turn, ask for support from other runners around them. While these are, of course, generalizations, this story of women persevering in the face of adverse conditions rings true.
As I read the article, I thought about my own running war stories—finishing the last mile of a cross country race on a sprained ankle, running a half marathon in the blazing sun and heat of an unseasonably warm May day—and whether this knack for perseverance and persistence translates into other aspects of women’s lives beyond athletic pursuits.
In fact, perseverance is an important characteristic, not only for women running a marathon, but also for women professionally. A survey of female entrepreneurs found that perseverance was a common theme that women cited as critical for their success. Another study revealed that successful women business owners share a number of the same core traits, including the ability to persevere in times of crisis. Many successful female leaders also cite persistence as a key to their career accomplishments. Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List, told a conference for women business leaders to “be focused, be persistent, be committed. The worst thing they will tell you is ‘no.’” Designer Tory Burch has explained that in founding her company she “stayed the course” and stuck to her original business plan. Elle Kaplan, founder of LexION Capital, has said that “Women will hear thousands of ‘no’s’, especially as they break glass ceilings and smash every stereotype in the book…What separates the success stories is that they keep going in the face of adversity and not throwing in the towel.”
Women are also more likely to need to tap into their perseverance when facing gender biases and obstacles that still exist in many professions. For example, the survey of female entrepreneurs found that women business owners had to overcome gender-based obstacles such as struggling to attract investors for female-focused companies, and that those who were ultimately successful did so because they were persistent. Similarly, women often face resistance in traditionally male-dominated fields such as science and engineering. In fact, they can be discouraged from even studying these subjects in school.
Yet another pervasive obstacle that arises disproportionately for women, in particular those in public service is the frequency with which they are interrupted. As representatives of an electorate, a politician’s success depends on her ability to contribute to the public discussion. When she is interrupted, her ability to do her job effectively is undermined. Persistence is key for her to make her voice heard. A recent example of this played out quite publicly in February of 2017, when Senator Elizabeth Warren was interrupted by a male colleague in the midst of a Senate debate, setting off a maelstrom of comments on social media and inspiring a now ubiquitous hashtag.
The New York Times article noted that women who run marathons, just like women who chose to pursue careers in male-dominated fields, are a self-selecting group. In order to be there in the first place, those women have had to persist despite obstacles, limited role models or lack of encouragement. Female runners, the article suggests, may simply be tougher than their male counterparts.
Some days the obstacles women encounter in the workplace—or in any other parts of their lives—may feel as insurmountable as a 26.2 mile race. And yet what’s clear is that women are well equipped not only to withstand, but also to thrive in, even the toughest conditions. With true grit, they persevere.