Why we need more Women on Top

Once women attain a loosely defined “critical mass” of representation — generally accepted as between 20 and 30 percent — within institutions and decisional bodies, their influence grows perceptibly.

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Suzanne Nossel writes in Foreign Policy about the Women on Top Theory, a term whose attractions rely in part on a lascivious innuendo, but which is — at core — profoundly important to the near-term changes coming in the world of work and public policy.

This two worlds are more closely connected than we often imagine, but the reality is that the diversity problem in business — where women and minorities are underrepresented in leadership roles — is exactly the same diversity problem in politics. There are 20 women serving as senators in the 114th Congress, 20% of the seats, and only 31 have been elected to that office in all (others have been appointed to fill empty seats). Today we have 84 women in the US House, 19.3% of that body.

The percentage of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 is 4.2% as of June 2016, which demonstrates that the private sector is even slower to accommodate the idea of women as leaders than in the public policy arena. And of course this is all in high relief because of Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination as presidential candidate of the Democrats.

The change that we need in the bedrock of work culture — a transition from power-based hierarchical centralized control to a power-sharing networked decentralized self-management — will require Women on Top to get us there.

And the long slow battle to gain parity in these areas of leadership — politics and business — is not limited to a fight for justice and equality. What’s really at stake is the transition to a different sort of culture when sufficient numbers of women ascend to positions of authority and influence in social groups. Stated differently, the defensive reluctance of business and policy worlds to accept women at parity is really a battle to resist a cultural change, one moving away from male cultural preconceptions of how best to get things done.

Nossel cites research for the Women on Top Theory (such as Jay Newton-Small’s work):

Once women attain a loosely defined “critical mass” of representation — generally accepted as between 20 and 30 percent — within institutions and decisional bodies, their influence grows perceptibly. This idea originated with Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who in her seminal 1977 article, “Some Effects of Proportions on Group Life: Skewed Sex Ratios and Responses to Token Women,” postulated that when women exceed one-third of a group they can form coalitions, provide mutual support, and reshape the group’s overall culture. The research suggests that the relatively sudden potential presence of a critical mass — a collective of women — simultaneously leading some of the West’s most powerful countries and institutions has the potential to reshape at least certain aspects of how global business gets done.

It may be no coincidence that Clinton has been nominated just as 20% of the Senate and House is female.

Nossel goes on to make the case for the ways in which organizations work differently once that critical mass is reached:

Betsy Polk and Maggie Ellis Chotas have written a book arguing that when women team up professionally they can achieve greater confidence, flexibility, and accountability than is attainable in other working relationships. Across multiple academic disciplines, research confirms that women tend to be more open to teamwork than men. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research confirmed that women are more amenable to collaboration, partly because they tend to underestimate their abilities and overrate those of peers, whereas men are more likely to conclude that they can best get ahead by working on their own. A psychological study conducted by University of Toronto scholars concluded that women favor teamwork whereas men prefer hierarchy.

So, if we are reaching that state change in Congress, will women there be able to unsnarl the gridlock? The US Senate has had a dismal recent record, but the best efforts of recent times — like the 2013 agreement to end the government shutdown, the third-longest ever — it was the Senate women who pushed hardest to find common ground and avoid scoring political points.

What will happen to the world as more women serve in legislatures and run governments remains to be seen, but indications are that there are foundational differences in cultures where women attain that critical mass of leadership participation, and those differences are beneficial for all involved, not just the women. Europe is perhaps the best indicator of this trend, but most of the world’s nations have never had a female head of state. We have a long way to go.

At the same time, it seems to be the case that business is lagging far behind what we are seeing in the political arena. I’ll go so far as to say that we won’t see 20–30% Women on Top critical mass for a decade in the world of work, unless we take aggressive action. And to take that a step further: the change that we need in the bedrock of work culture — a transition from power-based hierarchical centralized control to a power-sharing networked decentralized self-management — will require Women on Top to get us there. So, instead of just pushing for more autonomy, agility, and cooperative behaviors in general, we should push aggressively and specifically to get more women into positions of influence and authority, immediately.

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