Real Leaders

How Women Will Save Us All

Female executives have never imagined life would get easier for them, but lingering financial uncertainty across our ever more interconnected markets may just provide the last little push they need to get ahead–if they dare to. A longstanding argument against women in power has been that men have done just fine without them.

They’ve been running businesses, countries and social institutions quite happily and profitably forever. Even in industries whose primary customers are women, men have been holding the reins with no intention of including beardless pretty faces in strategic planning and leadership. Well, leading just got a whole lot tougher, didn’t it, boys? The longest and most globally contagious financial crisis in most of a century is showing that men alone aren’t as effective as they thought they were. The inevitable question is already being asked in a femininely hushed and tactful manner: Could this have been avoided if women had been involved in financial leadership?

As every good coach knows, when you ask a difficult question, people get no rest until it’s answered. Many are discussing how regulation can help avoid another bubble of speculation and stud-like risk assumption in the future, but the best protection may be right in front of us: gender-balanced teams at the top. This is not so much about forcing quotas as it is about admitting that men and women have very different approaches to the same challenges, particularly when it comes to risk taking. Faced with the absolute same decision, most men will shoot from the hip, relatively speaking, while most women will stand still and ask for more information. Sound familiar?

A quick look at our history as a species provides endless examples of men’s preference for risk and women’s love of security. Gender task specialization in mammal packs over millions of years was the best way to guarantee survival and evolution. Males risked their lives to bring food home, while females protected settlements from surrounding threats. And when they didn’t agree on how to act, they were forced to meet each other halfway.

The development of agriculture drastically changed humankind. Secured food supplies made larger settlements possible and, more important, allowed humans to build walls against predators, environmental threats and competing tribes. Life got a lot less uncertain. Relieved of the burden of nomadic living, men and women slowly began the battle of the sexes. They were no longer forced to quickly agree where to move to or what to hunt to keep the tribe alive one more day.

Many thousands of years later, globalization and instant connectivity across the globe have swept leaders back to levels of uncertainty and survival threat that remind us of our uneasy beginnings. In the world of business, no money today means no tomorrow. Rather than killing ourselves deciding how many legal filters and hoops to create for bankers to jump through, maybe all we need to do is make sure a lot more women have a say in what operations are approved and why.

By bringing men and women back into close-knit teams at the very top of organizational hierarchies, we may very well get the multinational giants that run our lives today to begin to respond in a more responsible and sustainable manner. Knowing what to do, however, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to do it. Boardrooms and top executive teams have been designed by men for men for a very, very long time.

Even as human resources policies work to push women up the ladder, many reports today confirm that the gender gap remains: Men earn more and rise faster across countries and industries. Here again, policy makers are faced with an impossible intellectual challenge: How many rules and filters? How do we enforce them? Why is it so difficult to get women up to the top? And yes, once again, the answer stands before us: Women are different from men.

Articulating equal opportunities for different genders is an oxymoron. Getting to the top requires mastering the unwritten rules of leadership models in any organization, a collective body of unconscious reflexes and individual choices that H.R. policy makers have absolutely no access to. That’s why no amount of quotas and policies can solve the problem. Women are simply going to have to learn to play the game of power the way men do. At least for now.

Once women get to the top in sufficient numbers to actually influence corporate strategy, unwritten rules about what someone has to do to be promoted in the organizational pack will naturally evolve to include female preferences too. So stop complaining and get playing. If leading the world were easy, both you and I would be unemployed.

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