On women and leadership...
 
Sheryl Sanberg, Facebook’s COO, has written a book called Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I haven’t read it, and to be honest, I probably won’t read it.  I found her TED Talk from 2010 (Why we have too few women leaders) to be both motivating and frustrating and based upon this Slate review, Lean In sounds like more of the same.
 
In her TED Talk Sanberg cites many (shocking) statistics about the lack of women at the top levels of politics/business. Her suggested solutions are pretty uncontroversial. Sanberg wants women to “sit at the table,”  and have “real partners” and “don’t leave before you leave.”  
 
While I think Sanberg’s point about having a “real partner” is pushing into interesting feminist territory, the other two points frustrate me a little.  At some level, Sanberg seems to be saying that we have so few female leaders because, shockingly, women don’t always act like men and if only they would act more like men then we would have more female leaders. This is probably true, but it feels like such a tired observation.
 
Contrast Sanberg’s TED Talk with this one, by Halla Tomasdottir on a feminine response to Iceland’s financial crisis. Tomasdottir argues that the domination of “masculine values” in the financial sector were a main cause of the 2008 financial crisis and that explicitly replacing some of these values with “feminine” ones could help prevent future crises. While I find Tomasdottir’s certainty that “masculine” values caused the crisis to be a little unsubstantiated, I do think that it highlights my frustration with the “solutions” proposed by Sanberg and many other women who bemoan the lack of women CEOs and presidents. Maybe the lack of women in these jobs says less about the women and more about the men who hold them. Why are there so many cut-throat, risk-loving, power hungry men in the world? Can’t we be happy that many women don’t seem to want to be like them?
 
I wish that instead of just encouraging women to act more like men, we could also seriously encourage men to act more like women! In addition to asking women to “sit at the table” and “not leave before you leave” can we ask men to have more “emotional capital” and take “risk awareness” seriously? Sadly, the answer is probably no... Though some of the (albeit rather anecdotal) evidence presented in Hanna Rosin’s book, The End of Men, makes me think that things might be changing in the not-so-distant future. Rosin points out that women are coming to dominate many key fields in post-industrial economies where the physical differences between the sexes are orthogonal to the ability of workers to do their largely brain-power (not brawn-power) based jobs.
 
The more I think about this, the more I find these arguments about men and women to be a little restrictive. While it’s compelling to think about “masculine” vs. “feminine” values or encourage men/women to act like women/men, I am aware that these differences between men and women are grounded in history, culture, and socialization, not biology. An interesting Freakonomics podcast recently covered anthropological research showing that in matriarchal societies women exhibit the same competitiveness traits that we associate with men in patriarchal societies. It’s less about biology and much more about socio-culturally constructed gender norms.  
 
Instead of lamenting the lack of female leaders could we instead lament the lack of risk-aware, emotionally competent leaders, or, alternatively, be upset about the proliferation of hyper-competitive, risk-loving, emotionally-stunted leaders? Instead of using sex as a catch-all term, I think we will get further if we are more specific about the cluster of (gender-correlated) values we are actually talking about. Maybe we want competitive, risk-loving CEOs? Maybe we want risk-aware, collaborative CEOs? Maybe we want a better mix of traits in board rooms and cabinets across the world. While these traits are certainly correlated with gender, I wonder if forcing gender to do the conceptual work of communicating these traits isn’t missing the point...
Sunday, March 10, 2013