Board Women

By Greg Fisher

Two weeks ago I attended an All Party Parliamentary Group in Westminster which focused on rebalancing boards of directors to ensure they included more women.  A compelling argument for doing this was presented by Nadhim Zahawi MP, who noted that returns on investments in companies with gender-diverse boards stood at around 11%, which compares with 6% for non-diverse boards.
My contribution to the group was to suggest that the debate ought to shift away from a man-woman framing to one focused on masculine and feminine mind-sets.  It’s a subtle – but I believe important – shift in the argument.  In this blog article I’d like to explore this a bit and also link it to the on-going Libor manipulation story.

Let me first articulate what I mean by masculine and feminine mind-sets.  I should emphasise up front and very heavily that these are really just working definitions and that they are presented as value-free.  They should not be interpreted either as complimentary to, nor critical of, anyone.

A masculine mind-set is one that is associated with individualism, competition, systems 2 thinking (intellectualism – see Paul’s recent article), specialisation, and efficiency.  By contrast, a feminine mind-set is associated with collectivism, collaboration, system 1 thinking (intuition and pattern-recognition), integration, and resilience.  Here, I have included 5 concepts for each mind-set, each of which has a dialectical counterpart in the other: individualism & collectivism, competition & collaboration, system 2 & system 1 thinking, specialisation & integration, and efficiency & resilience.

I prefer to think of the gender-balance issue through this lens because I have met many women who have a broadly masculinised mind-set (I would include a former girlfriend or two among this group…) and, equivalently, I have met many men with a broadly feminised mind-set.  I would argue that Margaret Thatcher, for example, was a woman with a broadly masculine mind-set.  Note that I am not being black and white here – often people exhibit both mind-sets and I have also met many people (men and women) who seem to have a good balance of both mind-sets.

A key point I want to make in this article is that boards of directors, like other groups of people and individuals too, need to have a balance of many dialectical relationships.  Above I have expressed these in the form of masculine and feminise mind-sets but there are other ways of expressing the same point.  For example, the philosophy of Taoism would call these two ‘yin and yang’, rather than ‘feminine and masculine’, respectively.  (My friend Hank Sohota has been emphasising such things with me for a number of years).

This issue of balance is important.  These masculine and feminine dialectical relationships need to co-exist together, simultaneously.  It is not a question of “either / or”, I am emphasising “both / and”, which Ralph Stacey has also stressed in his writings.  I view the discussion about “men and women on boards” as being a proxy conversation for this broader discussion about dialectical relationships.  Furthermore, the point is not that both mind-sets should be available to be deployed to different problems as they arise.  Looking at the same problem from both perspectives and having an open conversation, where each mind-set simultaneously influences the other, is often very conducive to creative thinking.  Consider that a board of CEO clones cannot be creative.  Moreover, I suspect the difference in the financial returns noted above resulted from there being a correlation between men and masculine mind-sets, and women and feminine mind-sets.

The additional value of backing out of the man-woman framing is that we make the whole discussion much less emotive: often irrationally, a part of me gets offended when “men” are grouped together and criticised, which I am sure is equivalently true of women.  Emotionally charging the conversation in this way is unhelpful.

If we frame the conversation in the way I suggest, about masculine and feminine mind-set, we can link the discussion to the emerging paradigms in both economics and management science, where the study of dynamic networks (Complexity theory) is making important inroads.  Complexity theorists are very comfortable with the emergence of dialectical “things” and apparent paradoxes e.g. complex systems are known to be simultaneously “robust yet fragile”.  The deterministic mind (which I would associate with the masculine mind-set) tries to stamp out paradoxes but if we take a complexity perspective, we become more open to their creative potential.  I should emphasise that the study of dynamic networks is not about dialectical relationships, I am merely saying it is comfortable with them.

Where I think all of this takes us is to say that the West is excessively masculinized.  Put another way, in the West a masculine mind-set appears more valued and so carries greater social legitimacy, especially with regard to positions of authority.  Nothing specific has “caused” this in the deterministic sense, it has simply emerged.  We might try to trace some of the influences back to “the Greeks” and the Abrahamic religions but even these “roots” were probably a manifestation of existing culture.  Some would trace it way back further to the bronze age, when (the argument goes) the creation of metal-based weapons allowed the few (inevitably men) to impose their will over the many, leading to the birth of masculinized societies.

Who knows?  In any case, there is an argument that such culture now looks obsolete in the presence of many national and international laws, and the nation state, which includes the notion of the monopolisation of the use of force within national boundaries.

I would place the recent Libor manipulation scandal in this context, to help us make greater sense of it: that scandal is another manifestation of the masculinization of the West.  In an economic system based on competition, zero-sum games and pure self-interest, built on theories that mirror these notions, what else do you expect?  Laws and regulations are often impotent in the face of such deep cultural traits (which are not limited to the financial system) and I would bet that the traders involved in the Libor revelations are part of the small minority of people who have simply been found out, perpetrating illegal and immoral acts.  There have probably been many others who have gotten away with equivalent behaviour, who we don’t know about.

There are causes to be optimistic and pessimistic.

On the one hand, the Barclays traders have been found out in large part because of the transparency effects of information and communication technology (ICT).  As I wrote in an earlier blog article (“System Transition”), we are going through a profound shift in transparency across the whole world, which is changing the balance of power.  That change is probably net-democratic.  Of course, here I am talking about a technological disruption: I cannot say whether such disruption will lead to a more balanced society.  That would be blind optimism.

On the other hand, I associate the masculine mind-set with self-confidence and, as a result, closed-mindedness.  If this self-confidence trait is true, then the West could remain locked in to a masculine mind-set for the foreseeable future.  A lot of people I meet like this just know they’re right and if you don’t agree, then it’s because you’re wrong and stupid.  And if you try to decompose the complexities and subtleties of an argument, offering alternative points of view, you are just complicating things unnecessarily.  In the economic sphere this often entails a single-minded focus on competition, while being oblivious to co-ordination, collective action and the institutions that are an essential part of a healthy economic system.  I am also mindful of Arnold Schwarzenegger who once lassoed a political opponent, John Wayne-style, with the label “girly man”.  Putting this point another way, one needs some appreciation of the feminine mind-set to see the need for some of the feminine mind-set.

Let me conclude.

I have covered a lot of terrain too briefly in this blog article but I hope no reader will interpret it as an attack on masculinism and as an argument to replace it with feminism.  That would be wrong: an entirely ‘feminized’ board of directors would be just as unbalanced as an entirely ‘masculinized’ board.  I am arguing for the co-existence of the many dialectics that seem to get bundled together in the masculine and feminine mind-sets.

The new science of complex systems, which seems to be open to dialectics and paradoxes, and the ancient philosophy of Taoism, both suggest that the West is unbalanced.  We need more of the feminine mind-set on boards of directors to create a more creative conversation, and this also fits with the recent Libor scandals.  But it does not necessarily mean we need more women on boards.  The technological disruption I referred to above might help to re-balance things but we cannot be sure if this will happen.  As a society we need to reflect on this very deeply and to challenge our frames of mind and the values we embody.


2 Responses to “Board Women”

  1. Arthur Battram says:

    Good stuff, Greg; mind you, it reads more like the introduction to the article than the article proper, while being thought provoking, thorough and measured, as always.

    You might be interested in the “Alphabet and the Goddess” by Leonard Shlain, re written language and female/male difference.

  2. This re-engagement with the feminine is, I feel, an important piece in looking at leadership going forward. Another way of viewing the subject is that the feminine might be more about a right brain- with the masculine being more about a left-brain focus. In the Spirals model left brain feminine would tend towards individualistic expressiveness and right brain towards collective sacrificial-ness (as embrace). Complexity thinking – that tends to represent the second-tier ‘yellow’ mindset (masculine) -could easily become abstract if not tempered and made wholesome with the ‘green’ humanistic eco-sensitivity (feminine). The collaboration of those two then enables the emergence of wholeness – ‘turquoise’. Jungian analyst and writer, Roger Brooke said: “The shift now needs to be from heroic conquest to reverend embrace.

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