You Better Have Women in the Room

Women leaders have a higher Capacity for Complexity than men do. And we are heading into the most complex, inequitable decade in America in nearly 100 years

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The specific places and people don’t matter, but I can just tell you I lived it too many times. It’s very clear to me, empirically. It’s just a fact.

If you have a complex, multi-variate, hard-to-define, multi-stakeholder, big, gnarly problem to solve, you better have enough women in the room (I’ll acknowledge right upfront that this is a male perspective on women so I hope you’ll accept my intent as authentic, if not perfect).

I’ve been in too many meetings and projects where the women were better at thinking through all the variables, processing the issues and making them make some sense. Frankly, they are also way better at getting their egos out of the way and keeping focused on the ultimate, best-possible solution to the problem at hand. And the more complex the problem the more egos can get in the way.

Just to be extra explicit, I’ve seen situations where certain men in the room or only men or the vast majority were men created failure when there could have been success. There is never a one-size-fits-all statement but it’s played out this way too many times, sometimes very frustratingly so. To my fellow guys I’d say, it’s time to completely get rid of the relic of the boys’ club, it just doesn’t work as well anymore and probably never did.

More than one headline in the spring of 2020 basically said, countries lead by women have fared better against Coronavirus.”[1] Why? The consensus is that women leaders are better able to demonstrate a balance of strength and compassion, dual qualities that are easier said than done due to societal expectations placed on both genders.

Kathleen Gersen, a professor of sociology at New York University suggests that a fully developed leader should be both strong and capable of feeling, “if women can lead the way in showing that these are not competing and conflicting attributes, but in fact complementary and necessary for good leadership, I think not only will society benefit, but so will men. Maybe then we can begin to open up the scripts for roles that leaders play, regardless of whether it’s a woman or a man or anything else.”

It’s also made me stop and try to figure out if there is some science-based reason why this dynamic, i.e. women having a greater capacity for complexity, could be true.

In the 90’s, two of the first researchers to venture into this space were Diane Halpern, PhD, past president of the American Psychological Association and Nirao Shah, now a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of neurobiology. There is still debate, but in a meta-analysis done by Stanford Medicine a few years ago,[2] here are a few findings that seem to be widely-held and relevant for us –

  • Maybe most fundamentally, the two hemispheres of a woman’s brain talk to each other more than a man’s do. In a 2014 study, University of Pennsylvania researchers imaged the brains of 428 male and 521 female youths, an uncharacteristically huge sample. They found that females’ brains consistently showed more strongly coordinated activity between hemispheres. The males’ brain activity was more tightly coordinated within local brain regions. 
  • A woman’s hippo­campus, critical to learning and memorization, is larger than a man’s and works differently.
  • Women excel in several measures of verbal ability, pretty much all of them, except for verbal analogies. Women’s reading comprehension and writing ability consistently exceed that of men, on average. They’re more adept at retrieving information from long-term memory.
  • In adulthood, women remain more oriented to faces, men to things.

I was on an excellent webinar in April 2020, looking at how businesses should rethink the future and scenario planning, due to Covid. The speaker was Mark Johnson,[3] Co-Founder (with Clayton Christenson) of the consulting firm, Innosight. One of the topics, understandably, was about complexity and how to deal with it. I sent a comment on the chat and talked with him a few weeks later. I suggested the premise of this section and asked what his perspective was. He was clear that his opinion was based on experiences and anecdotes, not a formal analysis of any kind.

To the question of women being better at and having a greater capacity for complexity, he said simply, “yes, that’s been my anecdotal experience on the whole. They tend to be more right-brained, creative, imaginative, and able to think at higher levels of abstraction.”

In a 2015 analysis[4], McKinsey & Co’s summation was, “Companies in the top quartile for gender or racial, gender and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Diversity is probably a competitive differentiator that shifts market share toward more diverse companies over time.”

Why would that be the case? Because “more diverse companies are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns.”

I need to briefly touch on one more question – why aren’t women just naturally “in the room” more often? In groundbreaking research[5] at BYU, Brittany Karford Rogers reports that “for women, having a seat at the table does not always mean having a voice. Women are systematically seen as less authoritative and their influence is systematically lower … They’re speaking less. And when they’re speaking up, they’re not being listened to as much, and they are being interrupted more.” Not to mention the all-too-frequent dynamics of man-splaining and he-peating.

However inadvertent, the gender dynamics shutting women down are real, says Jennifer Preece, BYU associate professor of political science[6]. The environment, she emphasizes, doesn’t have to be hostile. Rather than outright misogyny, she says it’s usually cultural norms and gendered messages that subtly, and profoundly, shape the rules of engagement. Individuals who suppress female speech may do so unwittingly. We have lots of learning and unlearning to do.”

Let’s leave it at this. The next time you are part of a meeting or a team trying solve a complex problem, putting together a group to take on a significant challenge, or in a situation where you know the problem to be solved is not obvious or simple, look around the room. Are there enough women in the room? I didn’t say only women (100% of either gender is likely sub-optimal). If you have only men in the room, I hope your problem or challenge is simple or insignificant. And after all, are there really many simple, insignificant problems left for the 2020’s?

Paul Shoemaker. Author. Consultant. Podcaster. Speaker.

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