Skip to main content

How Sustainability Will De-Gender Corporate Leadership in 2011

<p>Despite endless amounts of research showing the benefits of better gender balances to the workforce, most organizations are still dramatically imbalanced. But I believe sustainable-minded, holistic firms that embrace gender balances are poised to see great gains in 2011.</p>

What business leaders know heading into 2011 is that sustainability is good for business. Sustainability results in both innovation for developing organizations and the social and environmental benefits the world needs to thrive. Smart business minds can't deny this. In this way, it should be safe to call the sustainable approach the highest standard of business.

What we also know heading into 2011, is that we are sick of the gender conversation. It seems the more that research shows how a better gender balance benefits everyone, and the more incredibly smart and talented women prove that point (working alongside smart and talented men), the more obvious it is that conference speaker panels, corporate advisory boards and venture funds are still not integrating that information. Take a gander at the next speaker line up that comes your way. One glance will show a vast pool of mainly white males.

What each of us knows on a daily basis is that we seem to work and live just fine in a gender-integrated environment. Some men stay at home with the kids, some women do. Some men succeed in business, some women do. Some men think linearly, some women do. Some men operate from a more holistic perspective, and some women do too. This is not a question of men versus women. Few of us see that sort of gender polarization in our daily lives. Instead, as Michael Kimmel so wisely argues in his book, The Gendered Society (first published a decade ago, mind you) "it is gender inequality that produces the differences we do observe and that that inequality also produces the cultural impulse to search for such differences, even when there is little or no basis for them in reality."

Fighting that cultural impulse is the charge now. Sustainability demands it. If you take the time to watch even the most recent, much Tweeted TEDWomen presentations of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Audur Capital's Halla Tomasdottir, you will note absolutely non-gendered truths in what they say. Now, taking one step back, there should be no need for a conference like TEDWomen at all, if we are pursuing a sustainable vision. Those two women, and the many more like them, are among the most cutting edge thinkers out there. With that in mind, a "women's version" platform could well just make an event seem like "Topic Light" (for example, consider a "Green Conference" compared to a "Green Women's Conference").

There is another great book, Women & Leadership, with an unfortunate bubblegum-pink cover, that nonetheless compiles a wealth of academic wisdom on that topic, and which I submit has significant business sustainability leadership implications. Key to the overall discussion are chapters like the one by Linda L. Carli and Alice H. Eagly, "Overcoming Resistance to Women Leaders."

The co-authors point out that leadership has long been considered a "male" concept because mainly males have been leaders. They use the non-gendered terms "agentic" versus "communal" to describe two common but different leadership styles. Traditionally, the agentic style has been more valued and represents "masculine" traits, like ambition, confidence and self-sufficiency. The communal style is more often connected with women's ways, as the traits of that type of leadership are kindness, helpfulness, warmth and gentleness. But, here's the thing: Despite the fact that we have a cultural impulse to see masculine and agentic styles of leadership as the way it should be, "in fact, the leadership styles more typical of women than men resemble those recommended most by experts on leadership," according to Carli and Eagly.

When we realize our cultural impulse is dead wrong, and that gender differences may in fact be more a matter of socialization, we win. According to Kimmel, "Biology provides the raw materials, whereas society and history provide the context, the instruction manual, that we follow to construct our identities." With regard to sustainability, take note of that word "context." It will be from an ability to see the text, or linear perspective, as well as the context, or more holistic view, that leaders as people and as organizations will advance and thrive.

Warren Bennis, a well-known leadership expert and author of On Becoming A Leader, (first published over twenty years ago) wrote that leaders are those who master the context and managers are those who surrender to it. What if sustainability, in representing the highest standard of business, takes this on? The wise businesses following this model will commit not to special women's committees or initiatives, but to developing gender balance in our workplaces, on our boards and, please-oh-please, on future conference speaker panels. From there, I'd suspect a no less important shift in integrating race and other measures of true diversity would also naturally result -- all for the benefit of more sustainable businesses.

As we move into 2011, I predict that sustainable, holistic, diverse organizations will have a huge advantage. The communal, more social, side of leadership will balance out (not replace) the agentic. Gender will be a moot point. Mastering the context of sustainable business, rather than surrendering to the way things have always been done, will be the greatest leadership benchmark.

Photo CC-licensed by sylvar.

More on this topic