It’s time for leadership to move to a higher purpose

Seven things you might not know

  1. One in four Americans think there is a greater likelihood that humans will colonize Mars rather than achieve gender parity in the C-suite of Fortune 500 companies.[3]
  2. Only 21 of the Fortune 500 companies have women at the helm.[3]
  3. Men are 85% more likely to be vice presidents or C-suite executives by mid-career and 171% more likely to hold those positions late in their career.[12]
  4. Companies achieve a 34% greater return to shareholders when they have higher female representation in senior management positions.[6]
  5. 60% of publicly listed companies have no women on their boards.[9]
  6. “It is not a gender issue, it’s about the economy,” according to Ex-U.S. Treasurer, Rosie Rios[14] Actually, it’s both.
  7. The Rockefeller Foundation has started a campaign to get 100 women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies by 2025.[9] That’s an increase to a feeble 20% over nine years – far short of what’s needed.

(12 minute read)

It’s been over 20 years since John Gray wrote the bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, which has apparently sold 50 million copies. And yet, assessing today’s corporate and political world, it’s obvious too few men have adapted and too few women are ahead of where Émilie, the Marquise du Châtelet was in 1749.

“A great man whose only fault was being a woman.”  – Voltaire in a letter to the King of Prussia, writing about French philosopher, Émilie the Marquise du Châtelet.

Émilie the Marquise du Châtelet. Portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Émilie the Marquise du Châtelet. Portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Émilie was Voltaire’s brilliant companion, noblewoman, philosopher, mathematician, physicist – did I mention lover? – and she is known for her critical scientific contribution in making Newton’s Principia Mathematica more accessible and accurate. And she added her own concept of energy conservation.

She was smarter, brighter, more capable and certainly more accomplished than most men in the 18th century and yet, Émilie had a major problem, she was a woman – according to Voltaire, one of histories more brilliant and successful men. Sound familiar? And a mirror on today’s society?

118 years!

I wrote an earlier blog, Is the gender gap an evolutionary problem? in which a report, When Women Thrive, Business Thrives, cites the World Economic Form stating that it would take another 118 years to close the gender gap.[1] At this pace, Elon Musk will get us to Mars first.

This staggering number begs the question: Where are the Voltaire’s of today – the men who actually care about grand causes and a higher purpose? Leaders who see the folly of having ignored the full value of half the human population? Where are the leaders who, as CEO and Board advisor Bruce Fritch says, “personify elder wisdom?”

We see male leaders everywhere, bigger than life, ensconced in their 21st century, patriarchal perches (479 of them in the Fortune 500), but most are biologically and culturally stuck somewhere back in Voltaire’s era. They’re still running most of the world the same old way and still doing many of the same old things. They’ve mastered a lot of science, technology, engineering, finance and organizational efficiencies while ignoring the most valuable resource they’ve ever had, the full potential of their employees, of which, according to Gallup research, less than 1/3 are engaged in their companies.[10] Most flagrantly, companies are ignoring the potential of female leadership.

Using John Gray’s metaphor, men have left a whole planet of potential isolated, unexplored and unfulfilled. One might wonder why since the male, genetic predisposition is to look ahead and explore, which would suggest they can see the long-term consequences of myopic vision. Unless, these genetic tendencies are overpowered by the more selfish genes that drive men to attain and hold power and dominate the female species, which, in turn, emanates from their fear and insecurity. It seems the latter is true because most men choose to hold onto power rather then turn it over to women and venture outward to new frontiers.

Sapiens are incapable of breaking free of their biologically determined limits. – Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind [notice he uses “mankind” instead of “humankind” – even he doesn’t break free].


Deepening our knowledge

Science does not yet know for certain if the male leader’s inability to change his behavior toward women is genetic or not, but there’s mounting research that suggests it is intrinsic. What we do know is, it’s shameful and dangerous. No honest leader can rationalize how the 21st century can only count twenty-one women leading Fortune 500 companies. It’s a combination of male arrogance and ignorance, and the ignorance comes from an unwillingness to try and understand why we humans do what we do and to study the roots of human behavior.

“The number one difference between a Nobel prize winner and others is not IQ or work ethic, but that they ask bigger questions.”– Peter Drucker

Most men at the top of the leadership pyramid have read dozens of books on “leadership” (see earlier blogs, In search of leadership and Ten leadership books most leaders probably haven’t read, but should). But they have never developed a serious understanding of human nature. I’m not simply referring to psychology, sociology and popular bestsellers like Warren Bennis, John C. Maxwell, Tom Peters, Daniel Goleman, Jim Collins, Daniel Pink, Dan Ariely, Brené Brown, et al. They’re okay but they don’t go to the roots, the “origins of the species,” to borrow an apt phrase. There is another level of understanding to be discovered from the latest work in biology, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which is being plumbed by some great thinkers: Here are but a few to get started:

And whatever pains these researches may cost us, we may think ourselves sufficiently rewarded, not only in profit but of pleasure, if, by that means, we can make any addition to our stock of knowledge in subjects of such importance. – David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding.


The intersection of biology and culture

Science has been discovering the differences between men and women for a long time and more recently probing the big questions of sociobiology and the meshing of biology and culture. One hypothesis raises the question that men might not be genetically capable of bridging the gender gap. E. O. Wilson, a world leading biologist, says we may be operating “in blind obedience to instincts inherited from our humbler, more brutally constrained Paleolithic ancestors.”[11]

On the other hand, research by P. J. Richerson and R. Boyd at the University of California, pursued a hypothesis that “culture causes behavior by causing changes in our biology.”[2] If this is true, we can assume that the male dominant culture of the last 10,000 years has produced the “men from Mars” behavior. And according to Wilson, this is anchored in Darwin, and explains, in part, why the patriarchal culture has dominated the epoch of homo sapiens.  This could further explain why males innately feel the female of the species are followers and suited primarily to the nurturing side of life, not so much to the domain of hunter-gatherer. However, if the Richerson-Boyd hypothesis is correct, then there is hope that a change in cultural could cause a change in the biology of men. If men could find the will and the way to allow women to help change the corporate and political culture, we, collectively, might move from a culture driven by individual, male genetic selfishness to one of group male-female, altruistic well-being. This is why it’s imperative that we achieve a 50/50 male-female balance in leadership. Because only women can bring a quantum shift in culture. Men’s genetic make up does not want it to change to a more feminine culture.

If we can change the culture then over time it could change the male species’ genetic predisposition, which currently opposes female leadership. These are big biological “ifs” to explore. But it’s worth it.

Tomorrow is too late

If the World Economic Form report is anywhere near correct in predicting another 118 years to close the gender gap, then men and women have their work cut out for them. We are no longer living in the Neolithic or Voltaire era so surely, a few of the brighter, more capable males (how about half of the Fortune 500?) can see the flaws in a human hierarchy dominated by men, and begin to understand the desperate need to adapt, and turn the next period of our evolution over to the “other half.” At least until we get this planet in better shape, for everyone, not just some.

Men go to Mars, women lead Earth

“We humans are capable of greatness … but we are making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.” – Carl Sagan, American astrophysicist (1934-1996)

Would the Earth be a better place if the male species pursued their biological need to explore and conquer new lands and leave the stewardship of the occupied territory to the women?

Would the Earth be a better place if the male species pursued their biological need to explore and conquer new lands like Mars and leave the stewardship of the occupied territory, Earth, to the women?

My rephrasing of John Gray’s metaphor is not as facetious as it might appear.

If we think of our time on Earth as a brief “experiment” on the evolutionary calendar then we open up our parochial prism and create a longer and wiser perspective. We can then embrace the newest scientific learning in human behavior and the interlocking of biology, culture and evolutionary psychology and begin to recognize how it directly limits today’s leaders. This may be the only way we can start to achieve the “greatness” Carl Sagan optimistically credited us with rather than continue on a path of “making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.” And for the deniers who think we don’t have time to dig deeper, at least take four minutes and watch Carl Sagan’s brilliant video in my earlier blog, The Pale Blue Dotpoignant, blunt reality. It demonstrates both our need and our irresponsibility.

Another book that envisions well beyond on traditional masculine leadership and the problems it has created is Shakti Leadership: Embracing Feminine and Masculine Power in Business by Nilima Bhat and Raj Sisodia. The authors are unequivocal:

The origin of the problem is crystal clear: societies around the world have consistently and egregiously devalued qualities and perspectives traditionally deemed feminine.” They further state: “Women now comprise nearly 60% of college enrollees … It is simply a matter of time before women dominate virtually every white-collar profession. This numerical rise of women will inevitably bring about a shift toward more feminine values in the workplace and in society at large. It will mark a fundamental shift in the world, as nothing like this has ever remotely existed before.

From this perspective, if it’s “inevitable,” men have two exploratory options. Either discover their feminine side and lift their leadership, side by side with women, to a new balance, to a higher purpose on Earth. Or, alternatively, look to new worlds where their biological stasis can function and survive for a few more eons – Mars comes to mind.

Where no man has gone before

Elon Musk (SpaceX), Jeff Bezo (Blue Origin) and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) are already leading the way to colonize space so it’s an ideal time for men to further fulfill their conquering biological destiny, like so many have done before: Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Roald Amundsen, the Wright brothers, Neil Armstrong, et al. We, the men, the conquering heroes, have vanquished Earth so perhaps it’s time to move on, to go “where no man has gone before?” But before we do, we need to have in place a succession plan, a process for leaving planet Earth, the occupied territory, in the capable hands and care of wise, steadfast, generative, empathetic, selfless and brilliant stewards – women.

Why are people so afraid of the idea that the minds of men and women are not identical in every way? — Steven Pinker, 2002.


The numbers don’t lie

In addition to the get-started list of books on what science is telling us about male-female leadership, I have referenced a few key reports and articles in the footnotes, which I leave for you to explore further. In addition to the facts cited above, here are a few more highlights:

  • 9 in 10 Americans think there are more women leading major companies than actually do.[3]
  • Only 34% of employees think their employers consider it a high priority to place women in leadership positions.[6]
  • More than 8 out of 10 women believe not having female role models in leadership prevents women from securing leadership positions.[3]
  • 70% say if women were in leadership positions it would have a significant impact on the wage gap, changing policies and a more diverse workforce.[3] [This reflects habitual, male emulation that reinforces the glass ceiling (see earlier blog: Leadership and the power of emulation)].
  • [Worth repeating] Higher female representation in senior management positions allows companies to outperform those that don’t by achieving 34% greater returns to shareholders.[6] Similar performance results can be found in the seminal book, Firms of Endearment  (i.e., 1,026% return to investors over 10 years versus 122% for S&P, an 8-to-1 ratio).[15]
  • Advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025. In the U.S., it’s between a $2.1 trillion and $4.3 trillion to GDP in the next decade.[14]
  • In the US, the percentage of private-sector senior executives is: 62.6% White males; 24.3% white females (the balance minorities).[4]
  • In the US state legislatures there are 75% men, 25% women.[5]
  • In Canada’s Parliament just 26% of the members are women. Although Prime Minister Trudeau appointed women to half his cabinet positions.
  • In Canadian municipal government, women represent just 18% of mayors and 28% of councillors.[7]
  • The “true extent of sex differences in human personality has been consistently underestimated … [now] roughly 82% of the study’s cohort had personality profiles that could not be matched with any member of the opposite sex.”[8] [In other words, we are even more different than we thought. This study says that the “Big Five” variables (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience), are more likely to reflect underlying biological rather than social-environmental causes].

In summary, research has found that the masculine and feminine side of homo sapiens is more biologically different than previously thought and that this could be a significant cause of the gender imbalance in leadership. Current leaders must better understand it and deal with the root cause, and then create a culture that allows women to lead, which will reciprocally create an opportunity for the natural genetic barriers in men to adapt – to shift from the leadership of mankind to the advancement of humankind.

Toe-in-the-water action

The ultimate objective in corporate governance reform is to change the behavior not of the individuals but of organizations. – Peninah Thomson, Women & the New Business Leadership

Wherever there is an imbalance of male and female leaders in an organization, at any level, and nothing is actively being done to address this dearth, then the so-called leader is in denial. Or ignorant. Take your pick. And research shows that little is being done: “Thirty-seven percent of female MBAs said their employer isn’t taking any action to deal with gender inequities while only 11.8% of male MBAs made the same claim.”[13]

The Rockefeller Foundation started a campaign about six months ago called “100×25” in an attempt to get 100 women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies by 2025.[9] And yet, 100 of 500 is still only 20% – unacceptable. And if this takes nine years, how long will 250/250 take? Maybe women should start from scratch and be the ones to settle Mars?

women_and_the_new_business_leadershipBoard governance – in need of women

Peninah Thomson in her book, Women & the New Business Leadership (2011), sets out some of the efforts taking place in the UK to break the incessant cycle of reinforcing the glass ceiling at the board level. It’s a start.

The financial and economic crisis and the public belief that failings in corporate governance were partly to blame for it have politicized the debate about how, and by whom, our companies should be run. There is a new belief within the political establishment that companies would be better run and less likely to act recklessly, and so put the financial system in jeopardy, if there were more women on their Boards, and an expectation that companies will respond appropriately when filling Board vacancies … the more gender-diverse board has become an important symbol of the new post-crises enlightenment.” – Women & the New Business Leadership by Peninah Thomson.

Thomson has a another book, The Rise of the Female Executive 2015: How Women’s Leadership is Accelerating Cultural Change. It’s about how mentoring can play a part in helping women, which can accelerate the transformation of corporate cultures, which, in turn, could lead to a shift in men’s genetically driven behavior.

There are initiatives taking place and books being written, but they do not deal with the biological cause and effects; thereby, not achieving a foundational comprehension. Most of the initiatives are programmatic with platitudinous labels like “people first” and “people are our most important resource.” They do not change cultures or the male-female balance, they just paper over them. And relative to what is needed, it’s a pittance. And a pity.

The barbarians and the gatekeepers

Anything less than an all out assault on the status quo – dominant, patriarchal, male leadership in governments and large corporations – puts at long-term risk all that we have accomplished and all that we might hope to accomplish. Our lack of capacity to rapidly bridge the gender gap might become the biggest impediment to solving our biggest problems over the next two or three generations. And the primary responsibility for the outcome, good or bad, rests with the men. They are both the barbarians at the gate and the gatekeepers.

To be clear. This is not a blanket condemnation of what we have achieved; we have made great advancements. Rather it’s a “glass-half-full” perspective. It imagines what we could have achieved if “the other half” of the world’s population had been allowed to stand to their full potential and contribute their undeniable brilliance and generative power. And it imagines what we can achieve if we fully embrace the maximum involvement of women, everywhere, at every level. And that means “breaking free of our biologically determined limits.”

Good enough, isn’t.

For too long, men have thought, behaved and talked as if it is “mankind.” How myopic is that? More importantly, will we continue the myopia, the stupidity? It is unacceptable to think that 20-25-35 percent of women in senior leadership positions is good enough.

What we need is for men and women of character, men and women of wisdom, men and women of higher purpose to see the need to fundamentally change, as a species, who we are and how we behave. It is a challenge of the highest order, a legacy-in-waiting, an unmatched opportunity for men and women to continue the rest of the human journey as equals, and together make the Earth a better place … and go to Mars too.

Think about it.


    1. When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive, p. 2 [report available for download].
    2. Richerson, P. J. and R. Boyd. 2001. Culture is Part of Human Biology: Why the Superorganic Concept Serves the Human Sciences Badly, p. 4.
    3. The Rockefeller Foundation: Women in Leadership: Why It Matters.
    4. Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, American Association of University Women
    5. Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, One-page summary, American Association of University Women
    6. Catalyst (a global, non-profit organization working to accelerate inclusion of women in workplace).
    7. Federation of Canadian Municipalities (women in municipal governments).
    8. An article by Kevin Krause, “Gender Personality Differences: Planets or P.O. Boxes, Evidence or Ideology?” addresses a new study, “The Distance Between Mars and Venus”  by Marco Del Giudici, evolutionary psychologist at the University of Turin, Italy.
    9. Americans Don’t Realize How Big The Gender Leadership Gap Really Is, by Lydia Dishman, Fast Company, May 13, 2016. [Also cites the Rockefeller study].
    10. Gallup: Employee Engagement Stagnant in 2015 (at 32%). And State of the American Workplace [can download report].
    11. The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson, p. 76.
    12. Inside the Gender Pay Gap: The truth about women, work and equal pay, PayScale Human Capital. [This is a great report].
    13. Slicing And Dicing The Gender Wage Gap In 2016, Fast Company, December 6, 2016.
    14. Why Gender Parity Could Be A Massive Boost To The GDP, Fast Company, April, 8, 2016.
    15. Firms of Endearment by Sisodia, Wolfe, Sheth, p. 14