The Natural Leadership Talents Of Women
Women bring a different approach and perspective to leadership
In 2010 women made up only 12.5% of corporate board members. This was up from 9.4% in 2004 but the rate of increase is too slow. At the current rate of change it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK!*
So what, does it really matter?
Primarily the issue is about improving business performance not necessarily promoting equal opportunities for women yet there is a strong business case for a more balanced approach. Inclusive and diverse boards are more likely to be effective, better able to understand customers and stakeholders and to benefit from fresh perspectives and new ideas. This in turn leads to better decision making.
The business case is backed by a growing body of evidence. Companies with more women on their senior management teams were found to outperform their rivals.
As businesses seek an alternative to the traditional command-and-control style of leadership the natural leadership talents of women holds the answer.
Whilst there are many factors that contribute to leadership performance in both women and men, including personality traits, thinking and feeling styles, values, motivations, childhood experience etc, a great deal of scientific evidence has now provided us with the insight that the sexes are, on average, not alike.
One remarkable difference is the way that men and women tend to think. When women think, they gather details differently than men. Women integrate more details faster and arrange these bits of data into more complex patterns.
As they make decisions, women tend to weigh more variables, consider more options, and see a wider array of possible solutions to a problem. Women tend to generalise, to take a broader, more holistic, more contextual perspective of any issue. They tend to think in webs of factors, not straight lines - web thinking.
Men are more likely to focus their attention on one thing at a time. They tend to compartmentalise relevant material, discard what they regard as unrelated data, and analyse information in more linear, fundamental path - step thinking.
Neuroscientists** are beginning to understand how these capacities for web thinking and step thinking are created. The female brain has more nerve cables connecting the two brain hemispheres; the male brain is more compartmentalised, so sections operate more independently. Moreover, testosterone tends to focus one's attention. Women's lower levels of this hormone may contribute to their broader, more contextual view.
Women's inclination for web thinking probably evolved millions of years ago when ancestral females needed to do many things simultaneously to rear their young, whereas men's step thinking probably emerged as ancestral hunters focused on the pursuit of game.
Both web thinking and step thinking are both valuable. In this highly complex global marketplace, a contextual view is a distinct asset. Women brains are built to employ this perspective. In fact, in one study of Fortune 500 companies, senior executives were asked to describe women's most outstanding business contribution. Their consensus: women's' more varied, less conventional point of view.
Women's web thinking provides them with other natural leadership qualities. Women are better able to tolerate ambiguity - a trait that most likely stems from their ability to hold several things simultaneously in mind. If we had to sum up the modern business environment in one word, we would probably call it . . . ambiguous.
Women are well endowed for this indefinite business climate. Women's web thinking also enables them to exercise more intuition - and intuition plays a productive, if often unrecognised, role in managerial decision making.
This mental capacity has been explained by psychologist Herbert Simon. He maintains that as people learn how to analyse the stock market, run a business, or follow a political issue, they begin to recognise the patterns involved and mentally organise this data into blocks of knowledge, a process Simon calls "chunking". With time, more and more related patterns are chunked, and clusters of knowledge are stored in long-term memory. Then, when a single detail of a complex situation appears, the experienced person can instantly recognise the larger design and predict outcomes that anothers must deduce with plodding sequential thought.
Women, on average, excel at this form of thought.
Also related to web thinking is long-term planning - the ability to assess multiple, complex scenarios and plot a long-term course. Women are apt to think long term more regularly, whereas men are more likely to focus on the here and now.
Women definitely use long-term strategies more regularly in their financial affairs. In fact, in a study of six thousand investors, three-quarters of the women had no short-term investment goals; the trading records of thirty-five thousand clients of a large brokerage firm showed that men traded 45 percent more often than women. There is, most likely, a biological component to women's long-term approach.
Neuroscientists now know where in the brain long-term planning takes place. Women and men display some differences in the structure of these brain regions. So it is possible that women's brain architecture contributes to their tendency to planning long term. Women may have evolved the propensity to think long term to plan for their children's distant future.
Today, however, this faculty predisposes women to see business issues from a longer perspective - an essential element of leadership in todays challenging economic climate.
*Lord Davis report 2011
About the Author
Debbie Robinson is the Managing Director at Salesnetics and Step Forward Leadership. She has genuine hands-on experience of running a business at Executive Director level and has been responsible for creating and implementing winning business strategies and high performance sales cultures.
Debbie has a real passion for the development of the natural leadership talents of women through her Leadership Growth Programme: “The pace of change of more women in leadership roles remains too slow, despite a range of initiatives aimed at training, mentoring and supporting women. For too long women have been encouraged to conform to male leadership sterotypes. Women bring a different approach and perspective to leadership that is required in business if we are to fill the talent gaps we face”.
Debbie is married to Paul and has two grown up sons and two grandchildren. She enjoys yoga, hiking and playing golf (badly!).