Strategic Leadership

for Leaders in an Uncertain World

Academic spat about the role of women managers/leaders in the current economic climate and the real influence

It is interesting to watch academic spats spill into the quality daily press especially when they go against the grain. Here we have three female professors, each from a different top 5 European Business School, responding to a male professor of a less well-known European Business School.

Let me start by saying that I totally agree with the starting position of Profs Herminia Ibarra, Lynda Gratton and Martha Maznevski where they register

dismay at the quality of debate on the role of women in the financial crisis. Specifically, we question the basis for current speculation that the meltdown might have been averted had more women been running the business world.

What I am surprised by is the lack of quality in their own argument, as I will show below.

Compare the titles: Soapbox: why women managers shine followed by Claims that women are inherently more cautious are deeply troubling. Now, let us look at the arguments and supporting data.

Prof. Michel Ferrary is the first author and uses statistical comparisons, namely his research on the correlation between French company stock index and percentage of women managers in the respective companies. He finishes with two questions about the conclusions one could draw about performances of feminised companies in different conditions. In turn, the letter authors Profs Herminia Ibarra, Lynda Gratton and Martha Maznevski offer no data whatsoever yet finish with strong admonition that one must

beware of perpetuating unfounded stereotypes along the way.

More surprisingly, they choose to interpret the closing question from Prof Ferrary’s comment as

speculations (that) also come with dangerous implications

and follow by restating it to serve as a proof of their main point:

we are deeply troubled by claims that women are inherently more risk-averse or cautious or prudent than men, and that this essential nature somehow makes women more suited to leading in a downturn

So their whole argument hinges on whether one agrees that

Several gender studies have pointed out that women behave and manage differently from men. They tend to be more risk-averse and to focus more on a long-term perspective. A larger proportion of female managers appears to balance the risk-taking behaviour of their male colleagues.

This is an area where a lot of the research has been done yet the letter writers offer no data at all. They could have consulted Prof. Deborah Kolb short note Are Women Really Risk-Averse of March 9 in the Washington Post for research results.

The conclusion is best summarised by Ms Jackie Orme in End of the ‘ego driven’ leader who simply states

What we most need is a greater mix of personal qualities in our leaders.

As for the future importance and position of women leaders it is not the professors who decide. Ms Sarah Best has a telling example

The FT has already told us (March 11) that, of the 50 people in the world who have the position, skills and contacts to see us through the financial and economic crisis, just five are women. Women taking a leadership position? I’m not sure, it all sounds very risky to me.

At the same time (March 8th) Washington Post Leadership blog has asked its Distinguished Panel of 20 Experts (five of them are women) to address the similar question Testosterone and the Crash — you can read all answers there. With statistics that show that only 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and that median bonus for men in largest USA companies is 3 times larger than for women it is clear that anything they had to say was just wishful thinking. May be the last word should be with Professor Warren Bennis:

Unfortunately, the explanations for the crash have little to nothing to do with DNA or brain circuitry but have everything to do with the serious design flaws of its system, a system run amok for a whole bunch of reasons and like all system problems are multi-determined: group think, greed, sloppy and lax regulation, and close to zero transparency. Those are the problems and they are deep and there’s no silver bullet like testosterone — or lack of it — that can solve them.

March 14, 2009 Posted by | Business thinkers, diversity, Economics, Leadership, Letters | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment