Women and Leadership – the Missing Link (Continued)

In the wake of yesterday’s mass shooting in Oregon, it was again reported that the overwhelming majority of such killers are men, not women. Women nearly never engage in such behavior for any reason, including mental illness. Which again raises this question: what if any are the differences between the genders?

In my last blog of the above title, posted on August 24, I wrote (along with Deborah Rhode) that while the existing explanations for why so few women exercise leadership are not incorrect, they are insufficient. “They do not take into account the most simple, yet most powerful, of all explicators: nature. It is women not men who carry children from conception to birth. And it is women not men who breastfeed.” It seems hard to believe, we continued, “that these gender-based differences – physiological and psychological – have no bearing whatsoever on the perennial problem of getting more women to lead.”

The implication is that women might not want to lead as much as men for several reasons, in particular the attention they need and want to pay their children. While there is no mention of children in a recent article titled “Men Want Powerful Jobs More than Women Do” (link below), it is possible if not probable that the findings reported therein relate. The study suggests that women are simply less eager to gain power and, by extension, to exercise leadership, than their male counterparts. Think of it as a cost/benefit calculation: women perceive the costs of professional power as being higher than do men, and the benefits of professional power as being lower.

Interestingly, the anxiety about reporting these findings is palpable even in the article – which describes them as “potentially controversial.” The authors of the piece (all three are women) worry about being seen as biased because they suggest first, that there are differences between men and women and second, that some of these differences might be innate. (One of the authors  describes being “booed” at recent conference.)

One of the great scientists of the last half century was Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term “sociobiology.” Notwithstanding his greatness, maybe because of it, in the 1970s and beyond he was castigated for claiming that certain human behaviors – including the mother/child bond – were genetically based. There were differences, Wilson posited, between men and women that could not be explained either on the basis of nurture or of culture. Since then, some progress has been made. Catherine Dulac, another Harvard scientist, speaks openly now, without fear of being ostracized, about “sex typical behaviors,” including those relating to both aggression and parenting.

Still, so far at least the conversation about women and leadership remains stunted. It is fixated either on female psychology, or on the male-dominated workplace. But by excluding the information, the idea, that relevant differences between the genders are genetically based, we confine the conversation to what is politically correct.


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