Even in a ‘woman’s world,’ gender doesn’t matter

Posted on 4 March 2012


joseph nye
MUNICH— From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
Published Saturday, Mar. 03, 2012 2:00AM EST

Would the world be more peaceful if women were in charge? A challenging new book by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says the answer is “yes.”

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Dr. Pinker presents data showing that violence, while still with us, has been gradually declining. Moreover, “over the long sweep of history, women have been and will be a pacifying force. Traditional war is a man’s game: Tribal women never band together to raid neighbouring villages.” As mothers, women have evolutionary incentives to maintain peaceful conditions in which to nurture their offspring and ensure their genes survive into the next generation.

Skeptics say women haven’t made war simply because they’ve rarely been in power. If they were empowered as leaders, the conditions of an anarchic world would force them to make the same bellicose decisions men do. Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi were powerful women; all of them led their countries to war.

But it’s also true that these women rose to leadership by playing according to the political rules of “a man’s world.” It was their success in conforming to male values that enabled their rise to leadership in the first place. In a world in which women held a proportionate share (one-half) of leadership positions, they might behave differently.

So, does gender really matter in leadership? In terms of stereotypes, various psychological studies show that men gravitate to the hard power of command, while women intuitively understand the soft power of attraction and persuasion. Americans tend to describe leadership with tough male stereotypes, but recent leadership studies show increased success for what was once considered a “feminine style.”

In information-based societies, networks are replacing hierarchies, and knowledge workers are less deferential. Management in a wide range of organizations is changing in the direction of “shared leadership,” with leaders in the centre of a circle rather than atop a pyramid.

Even the military faces these changes. The Pentagon says army drill masters do “less shouting at everyone” because today’s generation responds better to instructors who play “a more counselling-type role.” Military success against terrorists and counterinsurgents requires soldiers to win hearts and minds, not just break buildings and bodies.

George W. Bush once described his role as “the decider,” but there’s much more to modern leadership than that. Leaders must be able to collaborate and to encourage participation. Women’s non-hierarchical style and relational skills fit a leadership need in the new world of knowledge-based organizations that men, on average, are less well prepared to meet.

In the past, when women fought their way to the top, they often had to adopt a “masculine style.” Now, however, with the information revolution demanding more participatory leadership, the “feminine style” is becoming a path to more effective leadership. Men will not only have to value this style in their women colleagues but will also have to master the same skills.

Women, of course, still lag in leadership positions, holding just 5 per cent of top corporate jobs and a minority of positions in elected legislatures (just 16 per cent in the U.S., for example, compared with 45 per cent in Sweden). One study of the 1,941 rulers of independent countries during the 20th century found only 27 women, roughly half of whom came to power as widows or daughters of a male ruler. Less than 1 per cent of 20th-century rulers were women who gained power on their own.

So, given the new conventional wisdom in leadership studies that entering the information age means entering a woman’s world, why are women not doing better?

Lack of experience, primary caregiver responsibilities, bargaining style and plain old discrimination all help to explain the gender gap. Traditional career paths, and the cultural norms that constructed them, simply haven’t enabled women to gain the skills required for top leadership positions.

Research shows that, even in democratic societies, women face a higher social risk than men when trying to negotiate for career-related resources such as compensation. Women are generally not well integrated into male networks that dominate organizations, and gender stereotypes still hamper women who try to overcome such barriers.

This bias is beginning to break down in information-based societies, but it’s a mistake to identify the new type of leadership we need as “a woman’s world.” Even positive stereotypes are bad for women, men and effective leadership.

Leaders should be viewed less in terms of heroic command than as encouraging participation throughout an organization, group or country. Questions of appropriate style – when to use hard and soft skills – are equally relevant for men and women, and shouldn’t be clouded by gender stereotypes.

The key choices about war and peace will depend not on gender but on how leaders combine hard- and soft-power skills to produce smart strategies. But Dr. Pinker is probably correct when he notes that the parts of the world that lag in the decline of violence are also the parts that lag in the empowerment of women.

Joseph Nye Jr., a former U.S. assistant secretary of defence, is a professor at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of The Future of Power.