Would the world be more peaceful if women were in charge? A challenging new book by the Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker says that the answer is “yes.”
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker presents data showing that human violence, while still very much with us today, has been gradually declining.
Moreover, he says: “Over the long sweep of history, women have been and will be a pacifying force. Traditional war is a man’s game: Tribal women never band together to raid neighboring villages.”
As mothers, women have evolutionary incentives to maintain peaceful conditions in which to nurture their offspring and ensure that their genes survive into the next generation.
Skeptics immediately reply that women have not made war simply because they have rarely been in power. If they were empowered as leaders, the conditions of an anarchic world would force them to make the same bellicose decisions that men do. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi were powerful women; all of them led their countries to war.
However, it is also true that these women rose to leadership by playing according to the political rules of “a man’s world.” It was their success in conforming to male values that enabled their rise to leadership in the first place. In a world in which women held a proportionate share (one-half) of leadership positions, they might behave differently in power.
So we are left with the broader question: Does gender really matter in leadership? In terms of stereotypes, various psychological studies show that men gravitate to the hard power of command, while women are collaborative and intuitively understand the soft power of attraction and persuasion. Americans tend to describe leadership with tough male stereotypes, but recent leadership studies show increased success for what was once considered a “feminine style.”
In information-based societies, networks are replacing hierarchies, and knowledge workers are less deferential. Management in a wide range of organizations is changing in the direction of “shared leadership” and “distributed leadership,” with leaders in the center of a circle rather than atop a pyramid.
Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt said that he had to “coddle” his employees.
Even the military faces these changes.
In the US, the Pentagon says that army drillmasters do “less shouting at everyone,” because today’s generation responds better to instructors who play “a more counseling-type role.”
Military success against terrorists and counterinsurgents requires soldiers to win hearts and minds, not just break buildings and bodies.
Former US president George W. Bush once described his role as “the decider,” but there is much more to modern leadership than that. Modern leaders must be able to use networks, to collaborate and to encourage participation. Women’s non-hierarchical style and relational skills fit a leadership need in the new world of knowledge-based organizations and groups that men, on average, are less well prepared to meet.
In the past, when women fought their way to the top of organizations, they often had to adopt a “masculine style,” violating the broader social norm of female “niceness.” Now, however, with the information revolution and democratization demanding more participatory leadership, the “feminine style” is becoming a path to more effective leadership. To lead successfully, men will not only have to value this style in their women colleagues, but will also have to master the same skills.