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

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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.

Lean Together

Lean InIt has been hailed as a turning point in the feminist debate. It has also been written off as an apology for Big Business. And everything in-between. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead has created the media whirlwind that its author intended in her quest to disrupt the status quo.

One hesitates to add yet more words to those column inches. But there’s an important connection that seems to have been overlooked. It’s why this fine book is ultimately flawed.

And it is a fine book. Sandberg may be wildly rich, absurdly well-connected and bossy – but it’s easy to like her [just watch her TED talk]. She’s clever and sincere and kind and, in some places, LOL funny. And she’s trying to be a peacemaker: “The gender wars need an immediate and lasting peace”, she writes.

Lean In is helpful. It abounds with nudges – ideas on how we can dismantle the barriers that our subtle prejudices create. From the Goldman Sachs partner who cancelled his dinner schedule and insisted on holding one-to-one meetings with his team only at breakfast or lunch – so that he could mentor women equally and without any hint of impropriety. To the story of the hospital physician who decided never to ask for a show of hands when he turned to his junior medics on the ward rounds (men being typically far more confident of their own abilities) but instead would ask his questions directly, and always evenly between the male and female junior doctors. And the CEO of American Express who, knowing that women are more likely to interrupted, will always stop a meeting to point it out when it happens.

Sandberg cites, as an example of what can be done, an initiative at Harvard Business School to address the under-performance of women and international students. The school’s culture was rigorously examined and ‘soft’ adjustments introduced to foster collaboration and respect. In just two years, the performance gap virtually disappeared – and overall student satisfaction levels rose. In a more equal environment, everyone was happier.

Sandberg is not blaming anyone in particular – we’re all complicit. She’s trying to inspire us all to engage in a ‘final push’ that will give birth to a world where there are no female leaders, just leaders. And she’s optimistic that things are changing as younger people, both men and women, look for new models of family life.

But ultimately – as The Times reviewer described it – Lean In is a manifesto for ambitious women. That’s not meant unkindly. Sandberg recognises that everyone should be able to make their own choices, and that most women don’t have anything like her resources or opportunities: “I am fully aware that most women are not focussed on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day”.

To change the world, says Sandberg, we need women to reach leadership positions. Women at the top will, she believes, lead to fairer treatment for all women, and a whole new dynamic in the workplace.

It’s a worthy aim. But is it as ‘simple’ as this? Is it maybe even a mirage?

The work environment within which Sandberg operates is brutally demanding. ‘Commitment’ boils down to being what we used to call a workaholic. It’s received wisdom that only the paranoid survive. Sandberg cites research that 69% of corporate managers can’t even go to bed without checking their inbox. OK, she is a self-styled alpha – so she enjoys the pressure. But this increasing addiction to work is not confined to Palo Alto. Crazy hours are expected across many professions nowadays. And it seems to be going global as well.

Interestingly, it’s not necessarily because employers demand total commitment, overtly at least. Sandberg quotes a McKinsey managing partner calling a town hall meeting to urge the entire team in his office to take their vacation. Most of the people who were resigning reported that they felt ‘burnt out’ – but they all had unused vacation that they had chosen not to take.

Almost wherever we look, the workplace is becoming relentlessly competitive. It’s an assumed ‘passion’ that jeopardises family life. And as work becomes more hyper-competitive, women’s opportunities shrink. Pregnancy and maternity leave especially become huge issues. Sandberg acknowledges her own fears that – even at her level and with her talents – her job and prospects at Google would be diminished if she took ‘too much’ time off [that is more than a week or two] after her first child was born.

Sandberg acknowledges that it’s a rat race. “A career is a marathon”, she writes. She believes that getting more women to win the race will change things. Maybe that’s true, but there’s surely a delusion here? We can’t all be leaders. Indeed, by definition, very few of us can. We’re still stuck in a rat race.

What if we try instead to slow down and step off this devilish hamster wheel that we’ve created?

First off, I think, we would want to reflect on the culture of contest that is embedded into our societies and so into our working lives. We have to recognise the myth of the inevitability of all–pervasive competition.

The irony of course is that the attitudes that enable this, the behaviours that can best shift our work environment from hyper-competition towards cooperation are precisely the ones in which women typically excel: humility, empathy and compassion.

To be fair, Sandberg isn’t asking women to drop these qualities. Her focus is on developing assertiveness. [And, as someone who often struggles with assertiveness, I have to say that I found her advice wise and helpful.]

But even if Lean In assertiveness can win the day for women, it’s likely only to further increase hyper-competitiveness. Women can’t fight their way to the top and then work 9-5 (unless they start their email at home at 5am, and continue to work late into the night after the kids have gone to bed).

The real challenge, surely, is to escape the culture of contest, to create new forms and structures [Enterprise 3.0?] that reflect the accumulating evidence of the desire for work that is characterised by reciprocity, sharing and collaboration.

If we can do that, we can really change the world. Because in a workplace built on cooperation and reciprocity, women’s contributions would be naturally and unremarkably accepted. Mothers would be able to follow Sandberg’s advice to ‘Do What You’d Do If You Weren’t Afraid’ and take whatever maternity leave they think is right for their child – without paying a big career penalty. It would be the world for which Sandberg is calling, where “expectations will not be set by gender but by personal passion, talents and interests”.

Sandberg says that: “I have written this book to encourage women to think big”. It’s a book from the heart, and well worth reading. But to truly change the world, maybe we must all think bigger.

Coming Up…

Here’s some of the kind of questions that I’d like to explore here:

Craftsmanship. Meaningful work and craftsmanship seem to be connected. We can easily recognise craftsmanship in a potter or a furniture maker. What does it mean in the world of knowledge workers in global enterprises, and how do we foster it?

Women at Work. Sheryl Sandberg has reignited a debate – and been castigated for founding Feminism, Inc.  Does her Lean In prescription move us in the right direction?

The Collaborative Economy.  Can we shift towards an economy that is less competitive and more collaborative?  Is it desirable and feasible?  How would it affect our working life?

Ethics. Perhaps the greatest ethical challenges in global enterprises come in the sales organization. To some, ethical B2B sales is an oxymoron. If so, what can we do to move the ethical needle?

Quiet Innovation. Does a corporate culture that prizes dominance systematically overlook the potential contributions of introverts?

Faith Perspectives. How does religion contribute to the search for a new work ethic? Is meaningful work somehow spirit in action?

The Bottom Line on Happiness.  What’s the ROI on meaningful work?

This being my weekend blog, it’s going to take some time to address these issues.  But I hope you’ll agree that they are interesting lines of enquiry, and want to join the discussion as it unfolds. Stay tuned!

The Point Of International Women’s Day

It’s easy to scan the data to hand and convince ourselves of a truth.

Marissa Mayer leads Yahoo! Ginni Rometty is Chairman, President and CEO of IBM. Many of us have women co-workers and line managers. Girls often outperform boys at school. More young women now enter medical schools than men. So women’s emancipation is a non-issue, a twentieth century struggle. Why on earth, we might then ask, does the United Nations persist with International Women’s Day?

It seems a reasonable question. But, adopting Daniel Kahneman’s superb Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s ‘System 1’ thinking. A plausible and easy explanation that is in fact seriously misleading. For a moment’s reflection reminds us that we have a long way to go.

The focus for IWD 2013 is on stopping violence against women. But of course that’s just one – vital – start point.

In advanced economies, for instance, women still face barriers in the workplace. A McKinsey study concluded that:

“In corporate America, far too many highly skilled women simply don’t progress up the ladder… despite significant correlation between gender diversity in top management and higher rates of return on capital employed.”

It’s another indicator of perhaps our greatest challenge: How to re-invent work to make it fully compatible with family life and women’s unique role as mothers.

In poorer countries, and that’s most of humanity of course, women’s emancipation is a broader issue, and multi-dimensional.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food noted this week that “sharing power with women is a shortcut to reducing hunger and malnutrition”.

Drawing on extensive research evidence, he called for a renewed focus on education:

“As much as 55% of the reduction in hunger could be put down to improvements in women’s situation in society. Progress in women’s education alone (43%) was almost as important as increased food availability (26%) and health advances (19%) put together.

“If women are allowed to have equal access to education, various pieces of the food security jigsaw will fall into place. Household spending on nutrition will increase, child health outcomes will improve, and social systems will be redesigned – for women, by women – to deliver support with the greatest multiplier effects.”

Think slowly for a moment – spark that lazy System 2 thinking into life – and it’s clear why International Women’s Day matters more than ever. For all of us.

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28 Oct 2011 Re-Inventing Work: The Feminine Balance