Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Women in business leadership.

Are they the better choice for CEO’s in modern companies?

It may be a subject best addressed by someone other than of my generation and gender. And if so, perhaps it should have been written in August, which was women’s month and a time when debate on the subject was more topical.

I’ll leave those questions as rhetorical, save to say that even the question in the sub-headline smacks of gender discrimination and perhaps explains my procrastination and sensitivity to the subject.

A large number of our generation could have touched the hands of those born at a time when women were not allowed to vote. In my youth there was a fine dividing line between chauvinism and chivalry; between patronage and patronizing; between protectiveness and being patriarchal and being the provider or controller. Even today, those distinctions are vague and confusing.

At that time there were no women underground, in defence force combat and in the police force. It was rare to be attended by a women doctor or dentist. I remember as a cadet reporter in the Johannesburg news office of the SABC, witnessing the appointment of the first women reporters in broadcasting in South Africa. The paradigm that by their very nature, men were providers and women carers was firmly rooted in the functions open to the sexes in society. It was reflected starkly in many institutions including religion, politics and economics. When it came to business, there was little question that boys made the better bosses.

So it may have surprised many that this old born chauvinist at an open event some years ago posed the very question in the sub-headline. I may have been speaking to the gallery because it was at my book launch organised by a women’s organisation. But by then, I had developed a strong conviction that the aggressive, predatory and macho-male patriarchal business model based on survival behaviour was causing marginalisation in society. Business, I argued even then, was far more suited to an empathy model because of its dependence on serving markets, customers, and the goodwill of society as a whole.

Apart from the list of women entrepreneurs who had made their mark globally, there was evidence of a growing preference for women in executive positions, a trend that seems to have increased as shown by this Moneyweb Article by Reuters which argues that “companies can't afford not to have women on their boards”.

In retrospect my argument was perhaps half-baked if not flawed. It was a simple extrapolation of the predominant view that men are providers and women are carers that led to an assumption that the predominant basic instinct in men is survival and in women empathy. Therefore if business should be based on empathetic behaviour, it is more suitably led by women.

The first challenge is to the stereotyping itself: are women more empathetic than men? Well, latest research tends to support this. Neurological experiments have shown (see article here) that women’s brains are indeed wired differently from men and their mirror neuron response is greater than their male counterparts.

Mirror neurons and the more recently discovered anterior insular cortex are features of our species that account for empathy far greater than that found in other creatures on earth.

The second challenge to the hypothesis is perhaps more serious: whether having a greater empathy instinct in women and a greater survival instinct in men will determine their predominant behaviour, and also whether this will be the most apropriate behaviour in all circumstances.

This clearly is not so. Our basic instincts, whether survival or empathy always have to be tempered by rational thought. Without this, empathy will be little more than an impulsive, emotional, perhaps hysterical response that could be counterproductive and even self-destructive – for example a heavily clothed person jumping into deep water to save someone drowning; or giving an addict a fix because you feel his suffering. An impulsive survival response, whether flight or fight, could be equally inappropriate – such as shooting through a bathroom door at an unknown or imagined assailant on the other side.

It is then self-evident that either gender can adopt the most appropriate response -- empathy or survival – in a given situation simply by rational thinking. This in turn means that we will adapt, even counter instinctively, to what the situation requires. If the predominant business behavioural model is survival, one could speculate that business would naturally lean towards the appointment of men in executive positions, whereas women would tend to suppress their empathy instincts and emulate survival behaviour to reach those positions.

So the question is not whether women are better suited to lead business, but whether business is best suited to have them lead. When the model changes, and it surely has to and will, then women could very well become better candidates for business leadership.

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