Is a 'womanly' business a more sustainable one?

Radical Industrialists

Is a 'womanly' business a more sustainable one?

The Living Future unConference, held earlier this month in Portland, Oregon, although ostensibly a green building conference, featured "Women Reshaping the World" as this year's theme. If you're not familiar with Living Future, their choice of theme would be your first clue that this is not your father's green building conference.

Numerous speakers, including Indian activist and luminary Dr. Vandana Shiva, promoted the idea that emphasizing traditionally female virtues and values is key to creating the living future envisioned by the conference's participants. Don't worry, men have not been dis-invited from the revolution, but it seems the days of women needing to act more like men to become leaders are coming to an end. Dr. Shiva shared that Gandhi, one of the great men of history, prayed daily to become "more womanly."

As a man and a long-time environmental advocate, I find this line of thinking challenging and irresistibly provocative. Could cultivating "womanly" virtues -- such as collaboration, empathy, and creativity -- in our male leaders, while creating space for more female leadership, make businesses more sustainable?

As a 30-something native Californian who grew up a family best described as a matriarchy, I am perhaps more comfortable than many men in the company of powerful women leaders and in embracing my own "womanly" virtues. Interface founder Ray Anderson shared neither my alternative upbringing nor my home state, but he began to recognize later in life the vital role that women leaders would have to play in transitioning to a sustainable society, noting that male-dominated industries and their style of thinking got us into the current mess. As Einstein put it, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

So, I would ask my fellow men of green business, shall we take it on faith (in Gandhi, Einstein, and Ray Anderson, if you like) that making your company "more womanly" is the path to sustained success? Or would a bit of data help this go down easier?

We have very solid evidence from the McKinsey and Catalyst studies that Fortune 500 companies with three or more women on their Boards have substantially better financial returns (including 60 percent greater return on invested capital [PDF]). So there is definitely something to this on the financial side.

On the sustainability side, we'll have to speculate a bit more. Historically, there are numerous key female leaders who have revolutionized sustainability, from Rachel Carson to Janine Benyus. But I find it even more interesting to look at the disproportionate number of women leading sustainability initiatives within their companies.

For example, the group known as Sustainable Design Leaders, made up of the leading sustainability experts from major US architecture and design firms, is over 50 percent women, while the number of women principals at these firms is less than 20 percent.

At Interface, most of our C-level executives are men; however, our top sustainability executive is a woman and I am the only man on the four-person sustainability team that contributes to this column. At the top, we have two women on our Board (so close to the magic three) and more than a few "womanly" leaders among our male executives (I won't name names, and, for the record, they prefer the term "servant leaders").

But what does this intentionally provocative word I've borrowed and these "feminine" virtues and aptitudes mean in the modern context of sustainable business leadership? And might we find a less polarizing way to talk about them?

Ray wrote of the need for more female leadership in terms of augmenting the left brain (reasoning, quantitative, goal-oriented) thinking that has dominated our business culture with more right brain (creative, relational) problem solving. Kathleen Smith of AECOM pointed out in her presentation at Living Future that newer brain research shows that women, on average, tend to have more interconnectedness between the two sides of their brain, and the parts of the brain that govern integrative and relational skills are actually larger.

The characteristics associated with this pattern of brain activity and development are consistent with the overall theme of interconnectedness: being process-oriented, collaborative, empathic, able to pursue multiple goals at once, recognize multiple truths and think across multiple generations. The good news for my brethren is that while women statistically are more likely to have these traits, this same pattern of brain development is also found in men who test higher for these "feminine" talents. I'm sure Gandhi would have been off the charts.

Smith also pointed out that the same "feminine" traits show up as the key qualities needed in the Integrative Design process where all the key stakeholders for a building are consulted before the architects go to work. Collaboration creates a final design that is easier to build and better for the occupants.

This also begins to sound suspiciously like the collaborative, open-source approach to innovation that so many companies have embraced in recent years for new product development. Or the "sharing economy" of Zipcars and Groupon. Maybe this isn't so scary after all.

Perhaps we just need a better word to describe this interconnected way of thinking that seems to be emerging just when the world needs it. I am officially putting out the call to the GreenBiz community for an alternative term for these characteristics. I wanted to foist a clever name on you, but in the spirit of interconnectedness, we're crowdsourcing it instead. Let us know by email or in the comments below.

On a final note, lest anyone be left with the idea that I am emphasizing "womanly" virtues at the expense of "manly" ones, I want to clarify that I believe we need all of the above. For too long we have placed a lower value on people in business who do not think and lead according to a certain "masculine" archetype, but replacing that archetype with an exclusively "feminine" one is no solution.

Sustainable business leadership today is ultimately about using every means at our disposal to make our companies places where each person, be they man or woman, analytical or intuitive, deliberative or adaptable, can reach their full potential and contribute their unique strengths to the collective mission. As we strive to create a living future, we need to get all hands on deck, not spend time discussing which one is better left tied behind our back.

Woman holding globe photo via Shutterstock.