Women, Leadership and Society

Two straws in the wind this week which illustrate for me what seem to be rapidly shifting expectations about women’s full participation in the workplace.

In Can women fix capitalism? Joanna Barsh sets out why having more women leaders in business could be the key to a better future for us all. She describes what she terms ‘centered leadership’, an approach which builds upon what we are often described as ‘feminine’ qualities. Centered leaders, she says:

  • lead from a core of meaning by tapping into strengths and building shared purpose, with a long-term vision for positive impact
  • reframe challenges as learning opportunities by shifting underlying mind-sets to replace reactive behavioural patterns
  • leverage trust to create relationships, community, and a strong sense of belonging
  • mobilize others through hope, countering fears to take risks and to act boldly on opportunities
  • infuse positive energy and renewal through deliberate practice to sustain high performance.

Encouragingly, she found quantitative evidence that this leadership approach resonates strongly with men too – and that it seems to be linked to organizational performance improvement.

She points to research indicating that women in leadership in society tend to invest differently—for example, on health, education, community infrastructure, and the eradication of poverty. And she quotes survey evidence suggesting that women’s full and equal participation at all levels of the workplace has to be at the heart of the reformation of capitalism:

“In a global survey of 64,000 people, John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio found that most respondents wanted to see more feminine characteristics in their leaders, and two-thirds agreed that “the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.” Feminine qualities that respondents chose included “plans for the future,” “expressive,” “reasonable,” “loyal,” “flexible,” “patient,” “collaborative,” “passionate,” “empathetic,” and “selfless.””

It’s not just that women have special strengths in some qualities. They often operate in different ways, able to draw from a wider spectrum – as  Tom Peters, veteran business guru, pointed out in a recent interview:

“They know how to do a work-around. Men don’t know how to do work-arounds, because the only thing we understand is hierarchy. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but then again the neuroscientists tell us it’s not that big an exaggeration. The male response is, “I can’t do anything about it ’cause my boss is really against it.” And the female response, by and large, would be, “Well, I know Jane who knows Bob who knows Dick, and we can get this thing done.” They do it circuitously.”

The zeitgeist runs ahead of the reality of course but there do seems to be so many encouraging developments – and worldwide.

Related Posts

16 Mar 2014   The Motherhood MBA

25 Aug 2013   New Economics: Women’s Crucial Role

Sustainability As Flourishing

FlourishingThis is a remarkable book, and fascinating from a Bahá’í perspective.  Remarkable in that it’s a radical critique of sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility programmes – and, more widely, of 21st century capitalism – co-authored by two US business school professors and published by Stanford University.

The book is a set of interviews around eight papers by John Ehrenfeld, former Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business and Environment and still, in retirement, a Senior Research Scholar at Yale. The interviewer is Andrew Hoffmann, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

Dr Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:

“Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”

He proposes instead a wider, richer definition: “sustainability-as-flourishing”. “Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.”  It has implications for the individual and the community, for every organization and institution. The “new story” that embeds sustainability-as-flourishing in our culture and our everyday behaviour must attend to both the individual and the system.

Dr Ehrenfeld describes himself as an atheist – “I’m hesitant to talk about some inner state because I really am not convinced that anything like that exists” – but one of his recurrent themes is that we have forgotten what it is to be human. Materialism is blinding us to our reality, and our true potential. We obsess over the economy: “Growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god”. We neglect human well-being and focus overwhelmingly on material goals – “Our metrics of success are now principally measured in material terms” – so that “in making ourselves rich, we are making ourselves existentially and psychologically poor”.

Echoing Amartya Sen, he calls for wider definitions of poverty, beyond subsistence, to include poverty of protection, of participation, even ‘poverty of affection’, where oppression and exploitation undermine dignity and well-being: “The way mainstream neoclassical economists view our humanness is the crux of our sustainability challenge”.

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two big ideas. We need to shift our dominant mindsets from Having to Being, from Needing to Caring.

“Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires…Truly authentic living comes when one accepts that he or she is rootless, that there is no physical thing or nature that grounds our Being.

“Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole…Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world – the web of life – and that wellbeing depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today.”

And at the centre of this interconnection is love: “Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible”.

Wrapped around and flowing from these ideas is so much more. The championing of intelligent and compassionate pragmatism over ideology, for instance, and a belief that spirituality is at the core of sustainability.  It’s a soaring vision which also recognizes present day realities.

So radical a shift in our thinking can only, the authors accept, happen over generations. But the impact of re-imagining ourselves and our world in the light of care and love will affect every aspect of our lives and our society, including of course businesses, which will strive “to provide a more secure and enriching working place” and to ensure that ideals of care and service drive their activities.

Dr Ehrenfeld’s prescription so closely aligns with Bahá’í perspectives – as, for example, set out in The Prosperity of Humankind statement to the 1995 UN Social Development Summit – that it jars slightly when he castigates “organized religions” for not having “caught up with the modern world… They have a hard time getting beyond good and evil, but the problems we are talking about are more about how to live in a finite, complex world.”

It’s easy to see what he means, of course. But it’s fascinating too that when ‘Abdul-Bahá, eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh and his appointed successor, travelled to North America in the summer of 1912, he stopped for two nights in Boston, Massachusetts.  He spent his first morning meeting friends and enquirers, and gave three public talks. At an evening gathering in the Hotel Victoria on the evening of 23 July, he spoke to those early members of the US Bahá’í community on “true economics” – founded on love, kindness and generosity – ideas with which, a century later, the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing seems to fit entirely comfortably:

“The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit…Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.

“Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it. Endeavor to become the cause of the attraction of souls rather than to enforce minds. Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity”.

The Motherhood MBA

c_figueres_v3_biggerI’ve been seized with writer’s block since last summer. But I just have to share this because I was thrilled to read it.

This week’s New Scientist has an interview with Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. She has the extraordinary task of getting 194 governments to sign a deal in Paris in December next year. This will be a global treaty that sets how we, humanity, are going to get to carbon-neutrality by the second half of the century.

The much-criticised and effective collapse of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 demonstrate how extraordinarily difficult it is to achieve alignment on global issues. What makes Ms Figueres’ task even more challenging is that the global treaty under negotiation “is the basis for a global transformation the likes of which the world has never seen”.

Describing her job as ‘one of the most intractable on the planet’, the New Scientist’s reporter asked ‘where do you even begin?’, to which Ms Figueres replied [italics added]:

“Well, first, you can’t get overwhelmed by it. It’s a matter of setting the stage for conversations to occur, building confidence recognizing progress and continually setting the next milestone. It’s not much different to having children. You can rear them in an antagonistic environment or in a facilitative one with a good combination of love and discipline. It’s about supporting them, and recognizing achievements and contributions, but also saying, “that’s fantastic but it’s not enough, here’s the next thing”. Honestly, what was my best training for this job? Being a mother.”

It’s so true. I worked long hours on a professional career but I always knew, and I hope I showed it, that my wife had an incomparably more difficult and challenging time in the career which she chose, as full-time carer for our three sons until the youngest went to school.  Fathers matter enormously too but mothers do have unique capacities.

Consultation is the only way we can deal effectively with all the challenges bearing down upon humankind – wars, resource shortages, inequality, climate change – and it’s where women’s natural capacities in communication, empathy and nurture come to the fore.

The supreme MBA – from the true alma mater (in it’s original sense of ‘nourishing mother’) – is in Motherhood.

New Economics: Women’s Crucial Role

We need a new economics. The Prosperity of Humankind statement suggests that women have a “crucial” role in developing it. At summer school last week, we looked at how and why this might be.

In my previous post – fresh from that study class – I attempted to summarise The Prosperity of Humankind, the statement published by the Baha’I International Community as a contribution to the United Nations Summit on Social Development in 1995.

In a nutshell, the statement asserts that “the history of humanity as one people is now beginning”. It sets out a vision of a world based upon the consciousness of the oneness of humanity, and the principles of a framework for action in building it. It calls for a revolution in our thinking to reflect humanity’s coming of age: “An old world is passing away, and a new one is struggling to be born”.

Noting that “the principle of the equality of the sexes is fundamental to all realistic thinking about the future well-being of the earth and its people”, it continues:

“A commitment to the establishment of full equality between men and women, in all departments of life and at every level of society, will be central to the success of efforts to conceive and implement a strategy of global development.”

But – and here’s what, at first, might seem surprising – the statement goes further, asserting that women have a ‘crucial’ role in the development of new economic models; a role beyond simply being equally involved.  How, we wondered, might this be?

It’s clear that humanity needs a new economics. The prevalence and persistence of poverty, unemployment and apathy, as well as the gross inequalities in income, wealth and opportunity, can leave us despairing.  If we want a just world, we need a new mindset – and the consciousness of the oneness of humanity has surely to be its starting point.

In that context – as humanity recognises its oneness and moves to build a just world – our old ways of thinking about work and employment are clearly inadequate, based as they are on assumptions of inherent conflict and contest. As the Prosperity statement puts it:

“The classical economic models of impersonal markets in which human beings act as autonomous makers of self-regarding choices will not serve the needs of a world motivated by ideals of unity and justice.”

We need to develop economic models that transcend simply the demand and supply of goods, services and labour; that escape materialistic pre-occupations to focus on human well-being in its fullest sense.  Our conceptualization of work and employment needs to reflect what really matters for our true prosperity:

“Society will find itself increasingly challenged to develop new economic models shaped by insights that arise from a sympathetic understanding of shared experience, from viewing human beings in relation to others, and from a recognition of the centrality to social well-being of the role of the family and the community.”

Women’s full engagement in this fundamental rethinking, the statement avers, will bring into play “a range of human experience and insight hitherto largely excluded from the discourse”.  And it’s clear that women’s voices are seen to bring something very special:

“Such an intellectual breakthrough—strongly altruistic rather than self-centered in focus—must draw heavily on both the spiritual and scientific sensibilities of the [human] race, and millenia of experience have prepared women to make crucial contributions to the common effort”.

A moment’s reflection and it makes perfect sense. If the well-being of the family and the community are to be central to our thinking about economic issues, then who’s especially well qualified to contribute? Who has so often – across centuries and cultures – been left to carry the burden of nurturing family life and building communities?

The Right To Work

Do we have a right to a job?

The International Bill of Human Rights, the fuller expression of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, includes a ‘right to work under just and favourable conditions‘, together with a ‘right to an adequate standard of living’.  But does the community have an obligation to provide employment? Yes, if we believe that humanity is one – and it’s through the concept of trusteeship.

This was one of two particularly interesting discussion points at an exhilarating Bahá’í summer school this week.  I had enrolled on a course studying The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement prepared by the Bahá’í International Community for the UN Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995.  What became apparent through our study over the week was that its themes are possibly even more relevant now than they were then.

I will get to the point, but first let me share the context, which contributed to the richness of the discussions. This event was organised by the UK Bahá’í community (this one was at Wellington College; the other English summer school this year was held at the equally beautiful Ampleforth College) but wonderfully diverse. My small study group included people from China, Malaysia, Italy, Australia, Egypt and Switzerland. They included a physics teacher, a surgeon, a first year undergrad student, an art teacher, a prosthetist and orthotist, an unemployed architect, an engineer and a development academic (breast-feeding her young one). Ages ranged from twenty to eighty years, and it wasn’t simply Bahá’ís either. And our consultation was especially illumined by two young women who had taken courses with the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity.

The Prosperity of Humankind statement is immense and nearly impossible to summarise. Its starting point is that we are living at an extraordinary time, a time of a profound transformation in human consciousness: “The history of humanity as one people is now beginning’”.

The statement asserts that justice is the one power that can translate this “dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected”. It proposes that consultation – freed from prejudice and partisanship – must be “the operating expression of justice in human affairs”. It calls for the empowerment of humankind through a vast increase in access to knowledge, and a fundamental redefinition of human relationships. And it discusses the nature of power and authority in the “world that is struggling to be born”.

The statement asserts that we all share responsibility for every child born into the world:

“Since the body of humankind is one and indivisible, each member of the race is born into the world as a trust of the whole.”

This trusteeship, it says, constitutes the moral foundation for most of the economic and social rights which the United Nations has attempted to define.  It goes on to extend the notion of the right to work, beyond simply the rights to work under just conditions or an adequate income (ie through unemployment benefits) :

“The security of the family and the home, the ownership of property, and the right to privacy are all implied in such a trusteeship. The obligations on the part of the community extend to the provision of employment, mental and physical health care, social security, fair wages, rest and recreation, and a host of other reasonable expectations on the part of the individual members of society.” [italics added]

This right to employment has to be understood within the context of concomitant responsibilities for the individual to seek work and to give of their best. It’s not a call for state-sponsored sinecures but a recognition, as the statement also points out, that work is special.

“Unlike animals, which depend for their sustenance on whatever the environment readily affords, human beings are impelled to express the immense capacities latent within them through productive work designed to meet their own needs and those of others. In acting thus they become participants, at however modest a level, in the processes of the advancement of civilization. They fulfill purposes that unite them with others.”

We are, the statement asserts, so much more than simply consumers demanding goods and services that support employment within a circular economic system. We are spiritual beings and within human consciousness lie limitless latent potentialities.  We yearn for meaningful work. To the extent that work is consciously undertaken in a spirit of service to humanity, it is a form of prayer. And it is the capacity of every individual to see himself or herself in this light that can call up the magnitude of effort and commitment that the economic tasks ahead – in particular, the eradication of poverty – will require.

We need, in short, to re-conceptualise work and to develop new economic models appropriate for humanity’s future. And that’s not a question that should – or can, any longer – be left to the elites. This is a challenge to which we are all called. Women in particular have a crucial role to play – and that’s the second particularly interesting discussion point, to which I’m going to need to return in a future post.

Your comments, as ever, warmly welcomed.

Craftsmanship and Full Employment

There seems to be a growing unease about the digital economy and its implications for employment.  The Bahá’í Writings extol craftsmanship. Could craftsmanship be one small part of the solution to the problem of mass unemployment?

Economies may be very slowly recovering from the Great Recession but unemployment stubbornly refuses to fall. In the US, 12 million people are registered unemployed, a quarter of them for more than a year.  In Spain, the unemployment rate now exceeds 27% of the workforce, and is much higher for younger people. There is good reason to think that things will get worse.

In Race Against The Machine, Brynjolfsson and McAfee showed how automation and robots are eliminating jobs. From the macro perspective, it’s a process of creative destruction that is delivering significant benefits.  We need technological advances to solve many of mankind’s most pressing problems – poverty, hunger, water, climate change, population. But for many people, and across almost every occupation, it feels like a race against the machine – and the machine is winning.  Even in low wage China, the iPhone manufacturer Foxconn recently announced an investment in one million robots to replace much of its workforce.

Even worse, it’s a race that’s really only just started: it’s estimated that only 1% of all the things that will be one day be connected are currently connected. Brynjolfsson and McAfee made a convincing case that there’s a third industrial revolution under way, and, just like the steam engine and electricity before it, the computer is rapidly and fundamentally restructuring our economies and our work.

As ever, some people are winning – and big time.  Brynjolfsson and McAfee quote a study finding that over 100% of all the wealth increase in America between 1983 and 2009 accrued to the top 20% of households.  The other four-fifths of the population saw a net decrease in wealth over that 25 year period.

In a recent TED talk, Brynjolfsson made the case for the optimists, though he readily conceded that ‘we’re not doing a great job of coping with the social implications’ of this revolution.

For the poorly educated and lower income groups especially, the outlook verges on tragic. Mass unemployment looks set to remain for the foreseeable future. Thinking beyond the narrow confines of economic efficiency, continuing mass unemployment is a human tragedy, a complete waste of human potential, a blight upon the wellbeing of individuals and families.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee do offer a prescription. But their focus is on the US, not on global solutions. And their approach is focussed on making the US more competitive, which effectively just shifts the unemployment downsides elsewhere.

Against this bleak backdrop, we might reflect on the very high station of craftsmanship from the Bahá’í perspective:

“Arts, sciences and all crafts are counted as worship. The man who makes a piece of note-paper to the best of his ability, conscientiously, concentrating all his forces on perfecting it, is giving praise to God. Briefly, all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity.”

“It behoveth the craftsmen of the world at each moment to offer a thousand tokens of gratitude… [and] to exert their highest endeavour and diligently pursue their professions so that their efforts may produce that which will manifest the greatest beauty and perfection before the eyes of all men.”

“The source of crafts, sciences and arts is the power of reflection. Make ye every effort that out of this ideal mine there may gleam forth such pearls of wisdom and utterance as will promote the well-being and harmony of all the kindreds of the earth.”

There’s a lot to unpack here (way beyond the scope of this post) but we might note immediately that the concept of craftsmanship applies to every occupation. It’s not the case that potters are good, computer engineers are bad. There is a craft of software engineering. Craftsmanship in this sense is more of an ideal to which we can all aspire.

But still, I can’t help wondering if, as consumers, we came to value craftsmanship more highly – outside of the digital economy – then we would surely create many new jobs for artisan bakers, dressmakers, portrait artists, rug weavers, potters, interior designers, tailors, wood sculptors, jewellers and furniture makers – to name the more obvious possibilities.

It’s a long way from a complete or even immediate solution but perhaps a renewal of craftsmanship can play some part in re-creating secure and creative professions for those least able to participate in the digital economy, who are currently the losers in the race against the machine.

Give and Take

giveandtake-coverGivers or takers? Which group is significantly over-represented at the top of organizations?

Surprisingly perhaps, it’s the givers. And that holds true across all sorts of professions, as Adam Grant shows in his superb book Give and Take.

So why isn’t everyone a giver? Well, one clue may be that givers also dominate on the bottom rungs of organizational hierarchies.

Grant explores why it is that givers tend to succeed in the long run – or fall precipitously.  The book has practical wisdom about how to give without getting burnt out or being exploited by ambitious takers. It makes a totally convincing case for giving as default behaviour. Beyond the individual, it also explores how to nurture a giver culture in an organization.

It’s thorough – Grant is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton – but it’s a story superbly told, drawing on a rich landscape of examples from Lincoln through LinkedIn and Def Jam Records to The Simpsons creative team.

The funny thing, as Grant notes, is that most of us want to be givers. He quotes a seventy country survey,for instance, in which giver values emerged as the number-one guiding principle in life to most people in most countries.

Outside of work we behave much more often and more naturally as givers. Grant quotes recent neuroscience evidence suggesting that giving activates the reward centres in the brain. There’s a wealth of evidence too that giving is associated with happiness, satisfaction and well-being.

But at work, givers tend to hide.  Giving is often associated with weakness. Grant quotes one executive who was convinced that it would undermine her authority if it became known that she was in fact a giver.

Why have we developed this compulsion to hide our inner giver when we go to work? The evidence suggests it may be partly because we systematically under-estimate the number of people who are willing to give. But mostly it’s because we frame work as a competitive environment.

“Workplaces and schools are often designed to be zero-sum environments , with forced rankings and required grading curves that pit group members against one another in win-lose contests. In these settings, it’s only natural to assume that peers will lean in the taker direction, so people hold back on giving…

“As a result, even when they do engage in giving behaviors, people worry that they’ll isolate themselves socially if they violate the norm, so they disguise their giving behind purely self-interested motives.”

The end result is that givers hide: “In my experience,” writes  Grant, ”plenty of people hold giver values but suppress or disguise them under the mistaken assumption that their peers don’t share these values”.

Grant notes that perhaps it’s especially an American thing. He quotes de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, after his visit to the United States in 1835, expressing his surprise that Americans help others freely but find it very hard to admit: ‘they enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest. They often do themselves less than justice’.

Brilliant book, I can’t recommend it enough.