Celia de Anca. Director. Centre for Diversity. IE Business School
1 April 2009
The women’s leadership debate and the reasons that there are still so few women on boards of directors will come to nothing if we keep referring to the same old male and female stereotypes.
McKinsey recently published its Women Matter 2 study, in which it drew the conclusion that the women leaders analysed used certain styles of leadership that had a direct effect on the company’s performance more often than men’s styles. Women’s leadership styles involved people development, intuition and participatory decision-taking.
Other studies along the same lines have insisted on the need for including more women in corporate bodies of management owing to their different leadership styles. However, despite the scientific rigour of the analyses, the same number of scientific studies can also be found to demonstrate that the presence of more women in senior management does not necessarily improve a company’s performance.
Accepting these studies as valid, I believe that in order to move forward in the issue of women in business leadership, certain untruths that add confusion to the debate must first of all be clarified.
The first is the search for reasons that justify something which, in my opinion, does not need justifying. Women represent half of the world population and 46% of its workforce. Some of them are competent and others less so, some are more qualified and some less so. Indeed, some of them are not qualified for senior management posts, most probably in the same percentage as men who are not qualified for positions of responsibility. In the globalised and competitive society of the 21st century and in the interests of corporate effectiveness there is no room for maintaining barriers that prevent talented or valuable women from taking up posts in senior management. The barriers we imagine exist, albeit indirectly and subtly, limit, for example, the number of women who sit on boards of directors to only 6% of the top 800 European businesses. Scandinavian countries have the greatest number of women on their boards of directors and the countries in the South of Europe have the lowest number. I hope there are other factors that explain what could otherwise be put down to Swedish women being more talented than their Spanish counterparts.
Having said this, I think there is a point to analysing the existence of male and female leadership styles in more detail, together with the change in business management over the last few decades, which is increasing its appreciation of qualities that were formerly relegated to females, such as intuition or the capacity for relations, to complement traditionally male qualities. Nowadays, a man can be sensitive and become managing director and his sensitiveness is appreciated. In the same way, a woman can be aggressive and that quality can be appreciated for team leadership.
Therefore, it is not the woman that takes her sensitiveness to a management post, but rather the “female” quality that reaches the post, whether taken by a man or woman. In my opinion, this is the second issue that adds confusion to the debate: confusing the group with the individual or, in other words, confusing a general stereotype and applying it to an individual on the basis of his or her condition without him or her being any kind of stereotype at all.
Before modern-day scientists discovered the way in which the right and left sides of the human brain work, the ancient cabalist wise men spoke of the two male and female divine attributes of reason: wisdom and understanding.
Wisdom represents the first impulse of logical reason, discovering new areas of the unknown. Understanding then comes to connect the different islands of wisdom to help with the connectivity and turn wisdom into a living, dynamic concept. Intuition is not much more than the capacity for quickly connecting different areas of knowledge: simplistic connections if there is little knowledge; extremely complex connections if there is an abundance of it.
Even if we accept the ideas of the ancient wise men and those of today’s scientists, it is still hazardous to turn them into stereotypes and, before Jane actually can prove anything, label her as supposedly inept at mathematics.
The existence of stereotypical male and female qualities that have been generally attached to men and women as a result of education, ambition or genetics do not predestine any individual. In the history of humanity, the individuals who have truly stood out had a good combination of both qualities, which made them more complete individuals than most.
There are clear physical, emotional and even rational differences between men and women, but the human spirit, which has no gender, continues to move forward and draw in all the attributes that make up its potential.