Being collaborative is often cited as something that women are better at than men. Now before I elaborate on this point I would like to start with the caveat that there are more differences among men and among women than there are between the genders. I think it's important to make that case up front and to make sure that any discussion on gender differences does not resort to general stereotyping. However, as long as the numbers of women running things remains so low, I think it is important to continue to examine the gender differences and how they play out at work. We may never know how much of the differences are nature versus nurture but advances in neuroscience are helping to inform the debate. And, the neuroscience behind the collaboration claim is, that under pressure, women produce oxytocin and this makes us reach out to ask others for help. This contrasts markedly with men who, when under pressure, produce testosterone which makes them more competitive. This is great news for women because collaboration is reckoned to be one of the leadership traits for the future according to some recent research by McKinsey.
I've just finished reading Flash Boys by Michael Lewis which investigates the "Dark Pool" scandal on Wall Street. It's quite a shocker as it details how the Investment Banks, in cahoots with stock exchanges and High Frequency Traders, find a way of skimming money (legally) from their clients. When I say "in cahoots" that would suggest an element of collaboration but actually it's the complete opposite. It paints a picture of a phenomenally macho, adrenalised environment where a bunch of computer whizz kids put their considerable intellects to the task of competing to find lucrative loopholes in the financial regulations. One of the notable features about this saga in addition to the excessive competitiveness... is the complete lack of females. It's a testosterone fest! Apparently when men are in rooms with lots of other men they produce more testosterone (think football crowds)and, at least according to Michael Lewis's version of events, this definitely seems to have happened in the banking world. I honestly don't think that the Banks, that are now being fined for strange sounding activities like Libor rigging and Dark Pool trading, would have got themselves into the situation if more females had been around. In addition to being less competitive they are more risk prudent and more likely to consider the impact on others. All traits that I believe would have prevented some of the worst banking scandals of late. I'm amazed that so few people have drawn attention to this aspect of the financial crisis.
Another trait that McKinsey believes is a future leadership requirement is good communication which I think goes hand in hand with collaboration. Communication skills also correlate more with female behaviour traits than male traits. I am a non-executive for Morgan Sindall, which is a large UK construction company and in that capacity, I have long been struck by the prevalence of litigation in the construction industry... and the paucity of women. I'm sure they are related. I'm forever banging the drum for including more females in the contracts teams so they can smooth over problems earlier. The jobs that end up in the courts are invariably ones where there has been poor communication. The court cases are incredibly technical, detailed and drawn out but I feel that they miss the point at times, which is, that the relationship has broken down rather than the bridge or the building. Women do talk out problems more than men do and I'm convinced the construction industry would be less litigious if there were more women in it. (Here I have to compliment Morgan Sindall for having 2 females on the board as well as a female Company Secretary- so we have reached that magical 3! And yes it does make a difference not being the only female.)
While I am very convinced that women are more collaborative than men I have noticed that Senior women in business, in my experience, are far less convinced of the differences between men and women preferring to see difference as a function of personality than gender. They point to many women around them who are highly competitive and many men who are highly collaborative. They find it unhelpful to draw gender distinctions as if not wanting to make themselves stand out. For this reason, they are very anti-quotas finding it demeaning to have a hand up preferring to make it on merit. I find this an odd argument because it suggests that the current status quo of 6% of FTSE board directors being female has come about through merit!
Ironically I think that the way women engage in the whole women on boards debate is actually very stereotypically female i.e. collaborative. I'm not sure that men would be so gentle were they to need to achieve parity. Their competitive natures would find a quicker way to level the playing field than the 30percent club's inclusive and persuasive approach. And anyway how can you argue for diversity if we don't promote the differences between the genders? If we're the same as men then there's no need to have more women to help mitigate against group-think.
I actually think women need to collaborate more amongst ourselves if we want to solve the problem of more women at the top. (I say "if" because it's not actually clear to me that all women do want to get to the top. The very construct is quite male when you think about it.) The current trend is to engage the men in the debate because, after all, they are running things and so it's in their gift to change the status quo. And so a lot of women have lost faith in all-female networking events. I think Gen Y women don't see the point in them, Gen X women don't have enough time for them and Baby Boomers feel a bit bored/bemused by Gen X's need for flexible working and Gen Y's sense of entitlement and lack of appreciation. They are forever hearing that they are not suitable role models, which is pretty galling after they have struggled to carve out a route to the top for their younger colleagues.
So, the picture I'm painting is not one of collaboration at all! We need to organise ourselves more effectively to solve this problem. All 3 generations of women in the work force need to understand where each group sits with regards to the nature of the problem and the potential solutions. I'm not convinced we share the same picture and so we need to create more networking events and initiatives where all 3 generations are represented and where we try harder to understand each other... in other words, use our female skills to better effect.
So, join a woman's network and attend an event with someone older or younger than yourself! And don't just join your internal women's network; make sure you join one which has women from different walks of life. After all, diversity goes beyond gender.