Leadership Code Meets Gender Science, Part 1 of 4 Parts

What do the latest advances in brain science tell us about the optimal relationship between men and women at work? The answer is that leadership in complexity requires both the male and the female brain.

If leadership is, as we say, about results, then consider this: well-regarded research by Catalyst Group has proven that corporations in which women hold at least 25 percent of the top leadership spots deliver 35% higher ROI and 34% higher Total Return to Shareholders.  Research at London Business School proves that innovation on teams soars when the teams are 50/50 male and female – a perfect balance of male and female energy.  Women entrepreneurs lead in new business starts, at least in the US, and women micro-entrepreneurs in developing countries are famously successful (as well as extraordinarily diligent in repaying their loans – something to consider given recent events in the financial markets). Despite this and other evidence of their value, women still hold but a tiny percentage of senior executive jobs in our largest and most powerful companies. 


Why so few?  Lots of reasons: lack of mentors and sponsors, issues with networks and career development choices, as well as with families and self-concept.  We will address these dimensions over time in future blogs.  This week, we concern ourselves with what the new science tells us are measurable differences in male and female brains — but not necessarily in the ways that you may think.

Why is this so important? Because of the world’s 100 largest economies, 51 are corporations. They have huge power and influence.  It matters how well these places are run.  And it would appear that they would run better if they had better gender balance in the top leadership roles.  Given the current demographics in most executive suites and boardrooms, that means more women.

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Every once in a while, while deeply engrossed in the research and writing of Leadership Code, a little thought bubble would appear over my head, a plaintive:  “But it’s different for women.” 

I wasn’t sure what to do with this.  Until that point, I had not consciously suited up for the gender wars.  As I saw it, the points of view were these: old fogies said that men were simply better suited for the working world by virtue of biology (the glories of testosterone coupled with neat dodges around other potential career de-railers  like close involvement with their children, or taking care of anyone or anything besides the bottom line). Hard core extremists on the other side said that women were no different from men in any way, and that the situation was all men’s fault:  full stop.  Obviously, neither was accurate but my counterarguments were limited to anecdotes from my own experience.   Interested in neither male-bashing nor turf-defending, and lacking another course, I steered clear of the whole thing. 

I focused instead on my true interest: the universals of leadership.  And thus our book was born.


Perhaps “co-birthing” Leadership Code finally freed me to look at the leadership situation for women.  Or perhaps birthing my own two daughters finally loaded the necessary gravitas and urgency onto questions that other, more enlightened women and men had been asking for years.  The central questions I have increasingly felt the need to answer are:

  • To what extent is women’s leadership the same as or different from that of men?
  • How do we really know the answer to that question with any degree of rigor and certainty?
  • To what extent might gender-based leadership style differences explain why so few women lead our largest, most complex, and most powerful organizations? 
  • Might the lack of women at the top explain at least in part why so many large companies get into ethical and economic troubles, fail to deal with complexity,  and wander the globe, a little bit lost, wondering where their innovative mojo could possibly be?


I hoped to find an answer that was not: “It’s a boys club and they won’t let us in.” 

So my quest became: How can we synch up what we now know to be the universals of leadership with the best of what is currently known about gender?  Suffice to say that the answers from much of the existing literature – both business and social research – confused more than enlightened.    One source says that women’s leadership is exactly the same as men’s.  Another says that women are cooperative, empathic team builders (if a bit wordy and overly process-oriented) while men are hard-charging data hounds with little regard for human life. 

Then I was introduced to Michael Gurian and his lifetime of popularizing and applying scientific knowledge about the gender brain (the phrase “gender brain” roughly means “the scientifically observable differences between male and female brains”).  In my next two blogs I will summarize what Michael tells us that the science tells us, as well as how he and his team have applied that insight in corporations. In the fourth and final blog in the series, I will share how Michael and I mapped his applied scientific understanding of these dynamics to our Leadership Code framework.    The results of that are very illuminating.

I should add that these advances in understanding have been set forth for non-scientists by a few authors.  One, Dr. Louann Brizendine”s The Female Brain, is a New York Times best seller. I focus here on Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis, and their new book Leadership and the Sexes because in it they apply the new research on the issues of men and women working together in corporate life.