In May 2011, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, gave the commencement address at Barnard. It was a gutsy speech, and she knew it. Because rather than falling into the traditional platitudes of graduation, and rather than following the predictable route of urging the newly minted young women graduates to follow their dreams and seek their passion, Sandberg, one of the country’s most successful female executives, explicitly told the Barnard graduates not to compromise their careers. “Women,” she cautioned them, “almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, ‘I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day.’ Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, ‘I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.’ These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back.”
Sandberg—a wife and mother of two—pulled no punches in telling the young women what to do. “Do not lean back,” she urged. “Lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”
Around 2009, the world was suddenly awash with a particular sort of heroine. Armed with sensible heels and sheer intelligence, she descended upon the planet to clean up the mess unleashed by men. In Iceland, a handful of female politicians and businesswomen seized control of that country’s financial system, wrecked and bankrupt over the past several years by a bevy of male bankers. In Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf set out to mend a nation broken by decades of war and civil strife. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel worked to restore not only her country’s economy but all of Europe’s as well. In the United States, reeling still from the calamities of the 2008 financial crisis, a small but mighty group of women were dubbed the new sheriffs of Wall Street: Sheila Bair, Mary Schapiro, and Elizabeth Warren. Hillary Clinton was tapped to right the United States’ foreign policy, Samantha Power to refine its humanitarian goals. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn, director of the IMF, was indicted for the attempted rape of a hotel chambermaid, all of Europe lobbied for a woman, Christine Lagarde, to replace him. And Lagarde was quick in touting the advantages of being female. “Gender-dominated environments are not good,” she argued, “particularly in the financial sector, where there are too few women. Men have a tendency to . . . show how hairy-chested they are, compared with the man who’s sitting next to them. I honestly think that there should never be too much testosterone in one room.”
Possibly, the timing of these various promotions was wholly coincidental. Possibly, it was the birth pangs of a genuine female elite—the daughters of feminism finally thrust into power. And possibly it was because, in a time of turmoil and despair, society at large was explicitly searching for a different kind of power, and a different tone of voice.
For centuries, women were presumed to be not only inherently inferior to men, but qualitatively different as well—more fragile, more vulnerable, and far less inclined to lead anything more complex than a household. Such views reached a pinnacle of sorts during the Victorian era, when women were reconstructed as “domestic angels,” genetically predisposed to cook, clean, and raise the children—and otherwise stay clear of men’s affairs. In an 1872 Supreme Court case, for instance, Justice Joseph Bradley ruled that “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many occupations of civil life.” Going on, the good judge opined that “the harmony, not to say identity, of interests and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband.”
As droves of women started to chafe at their enforced domesticity, however, and to flow into the colleges and jobs that were increasingly available to them by the turn of the twentieth century, prevailing views on women’s nature began to modify somewhat, acknowledging, albeit begrudgingly, that women could occasionally find a place and a voice outside the domestic realm. Yet even the most enthusiastic of women’s advocates still saw women’s roles as essentially shaped and constrained by their inherent femininity—by the sheer fact, in other words, that their bodies and minds worked differently than men’s. “In the government of the physical world,” wrote Mary Wollstonecraft in her path-breaking Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “the female in point of strength is, in general, inferior to the male. This is the law of Nature.” Accordingly, even as women sneaked into formerly all-male bastions such as law or medicine, even as they ran small businesses or organized their communities, they were presumed to do so in a “womanly” fashion—speaking softly, tending to others, and never seeking power for its own sake.
All this changed, of course, with the advent of feminism. Suddenly, women were not only barging into positions once reserved strictly for men, but they were barging in on the men’s terms, insisting on wholly equal and nondifferentiated treatment. Indeed, attacking the rhetoric of “separate but equal” that was also being dismantled in the civil rights arena, second-wave feminists argued passionately against any special or distinctive treatment of women, any hint that women in the workplace might behave differently than men. Critically, the scholars and activists who promoted this argument were not just advocating that women be taken seriously or that they be allowed into once-male spheres. They were arguing that the entire history of women’s inequality was due, not to any inherent differences between the sexes, but rather to centuries of structural oppression imposed by men. Or, as Simone de Beauvoir put it: “Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.” Women, in other words, were not essentially different from men, not gentler, or kinder, or inherently more focused on their offspring. They had simply been forced into these roles by men.
This view of inherent equality has permeated public discourse since the late 1960s. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex, even if such discrimination were to take the form of favorable or protective treatment for women. Under the terms of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, women who give birth are not actually treated as women giving birth per se, but as individuals undergoing a medical event. And under the terms of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, caregiving, even to a newborn child, is explicitly defined as a gender-neutral activity, with provisions for unpaid leave extended equally to men and women. Under U.S. law, therefore, any hint of women’s distinctiveness has been essentially banished, replaced by the belief that women, given the same opportunities, will behave more or less like men.
In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, however, a renegade, slightly retrograde view has started to emerge. What, some observers have wondered publicly, if women in the workforce don’t behave exactly like men? What if women leaders, in particular, don’t lead exactly like men? And what if those characteristics, rather than consigning women to domestic chores, actually made them highly prized members of social organizations?
Clearly, this is dangerous ground to tread. Because if it’s acceptable to claim that women are different in a good way, then it’s just a hop, skip, and jump back toward defining them as different in a bad way. If we attribute any particular characteristics to women as a group, aren’t we just reducing them to the same sorts of social stereotypes that feminism so successfully toppled?
Yes, admittedly, there are real risks in heading down this path, and real potholes—both practical and theoretical—to avoid. But there are also intriguing strands of research that seem foolish to ignore. Since the early 1990s, for example, the Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen has been demonstrating persuasively that men and women in the workplace communicate differently. According to her now-voluminous studies, men in group settings strive generally to preserve status, while women try to gain intimacy and closeness. Women, that is, try to get people to like them. They ask for resources and favors less frequently than men, try not to appear to be acting aggressively, and tend to share power rather than seizing it. Which means that women can appear to lack authority in the workplace—but, also, potentially, that they can be more inspiring and transformational leaders.
Others, meanwhile, have tackled the tricky issue of gender difference from more peripheral, though no less fascinating, directions. Boris Groysberg, for instance, is a former colleague of mine who set out in the early 2000s to tackle a fairly standard business question: Why, he asked, do the star performers at certain investment banks not remain stars once they’ve transferred to other, similar firms? As a good student of organizational behavior, Groysberg was expecting to find factors that related to the structure of the organizations—hierarchies, for example, or channels of information. What he found instead, though, was that one of the most important predictors of success, and one of the most important differentiators in a person’s career, was gender. Simply put, male stars who changed firms failed to perform as well as they once had, while female stars did just as well or better. Further research convinced Groysberg that the women were not inherently more talented than the men, or even simply luckier. Instead, even as women were building careers at their first firms, they were also—either consciously or unconsciously—building networks and relationships outside the firm. When they left, they took those networks with them and benefited from them. Men, by contrast, tended to spend their time and social capital building relationships inside the firm—grabbing a beer with the boss, say, or golfing with the team. When they left, these relationships died, along, apparently, with their once-stellar performance.
In a similarly orthogonal vein, John Coates and Joe Herbert, researchers in neuroscience at Cambridge University, launched a study in 2008 to examine the relationship between testosterone and risk taking. Working only with male subjects (because they had no explicit intent to study gender differences), they assembled a group of seventeen volunteers, all working as financial traders in London. Each morning for eight days, Coates and Herbert measured the traders’ testosterone levels.* And each afternoon, they recorded their daily trades. What they found was stunning, if not entirely surprising: the more testosterone a man had, the more profitably he traded. Higher levels of testosterone literally appeared to make men more willing to take risks, while lower levels made them more cautious.
Finally, one of my favorite bits of recent research comes from Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund, economists at Stanford and the University of Pittsburgh, respectively. In 2007, they put eighty college students in a room and asked them to complete a series of arithmetic problems. In the first round of the experiment, the students, half male and half female, were split into groups and compensated according to two different payment schemes: half were paid a piece rate of fifty cents for each correct answer, and half were paid a competitive rate in which the highest scoring student (in a group of four) received two dollars for each correct answer. There was no mention of gender, and the men and women scored equally well. In the second round, the students were offered a choice between the two payment schemes: either fifty cents for each correct answer, again, or two dollars per correct answer to the top scorer. Theoretically, both men and women should have responded similarly to this choice, with the highest scorers from round one selecting the competitive payment scheme and the lowest choosing the more secure piecemeal option. Instead, though, the group split markedly among gender lines, with more men choosing the competitive scheme (73 percent) and more women selecting the per-puzzle rate. Men chose risk, in other words, even when logic dictated against it. Women chose security even when the risks were low.
A handful of studies, of course, does not a movement unmake. And given the prejudice, discrimination, and structural obstacles that have surrounded women for centuries, it would be exceedingly foolhardy to leap blithely toward a belief that women are somehow organically destined to behave differently in the workplace than do men. To do so would risk going back to a world in which women were routinely suspected of being kinder, and gentler, and more caring. Of being less fit for the rough-and-tumble of working life.
Yet it’s not clear (at least to me) why being supportive of women’s ambition necessarily means denying the possibility of biologically or hormonally driven implications. Are all women, under all circumstances, predestined to behave in certain ways or perform certain functions? Of course not. But are women, in general, more or less likely to evince particular characteristics? Maybe. And if those characteristics can be usefully harnessed—if they can, in fact, help us to define models of work and leadership that might fit more comfortably around more women—then they almost certainly demand some measure of scrutiny.
Looking back over the past twenty years of my own life, I find it impossible not to believe that men and women tend to manage things differently. Not better. Not worse. But differently. My evidence on this point is wholly anecdotal, of course, but it comes in wave after wave, and hits me whenever I venture from a male-dominated organization (Harvard Business School or the board of Goldman Sachs) to a female one (Barnard College or the board of my daughter’s all-girls school). Some of the differences are wholly trivial. At Harvard, no one ever noticed anything about my wardrobe; at Barnard, every suit and handbag is well known and under constant appraisal (one alumna even wrote formally to complain about a dress I had worn to a reunion). At Harvard, a colleague once suggested that I end class by jumping out of a cake. At Barnard, that just doesn’t happen. The jokes vary dramatically in male- and female-dominated offices, as do the offhand references, the out-of-office gatherings, and the simple rhythms of day-to-day life. (At Barnard, I have two desk drawers reserved for gifts of chocolate and nice notes. At Harvard, I think I kept spare batteries there.)
Other differences, though, are both subtler and more substantive. In an organization dominated by men, in my experience, decisions tend to be made through fairly predictable, relatively hierarchical channels. The lines of power are clear and well defined, and once policies have been set, they are presumed to be permanent. In an organization dominated by women, by comparison, streams of power and influence are considerably more fluid, flowing not just from the top down, but in often-invisible eddies around the center. Decisions are taken more slowly and with a more conscious sense of their impermanence. To give one relatively minor example: when Harvard Business School changed its website some years ago, I was a senior member of the faculty and the chair of a department. Yet my involvement with both the decision and the design was minimal, limited to a handful of conversations around the new site’s implementation. At Barnard, by contrast, a 2011 decision to redesign the website was met with a veritable storm of opposition and input. There were listening sessions and consultations, working groups and committees. And when the community still expressed its disapproval with the final design, we pulled the website, had more consultations, and eventually redesigned it. Was one route better than the other? I don’t know. HBS got its website up and running faster and more efficiently. Barnard got a better website in the end. Same decision, but a wholly different dynamic.
Similarly, organizations run or dominated by men seem to be less concerned than those run by women with achieving internal consensus. Men, to put it bluntly, are comfortable with exerting authority over dissent; women, less so. At Harvard, and in male environments generally, I would say, people are accustomed to and accepting of disagreement—even all-out, pitched-battle disagreement. The case in point here is Larry Summers, the University’s controversial president from 2001 to 2006. Summers adored disagreement, in my experience, and loved nothing more than a good argument. He didn’t necessarily care what people thought of him, or what he thought of them. The argument, the logic, was what mattered.** At Barnard, by contrast, and in organizations more dominated by women, dissent is a bad thing, something to be avoided or patched up. People don’t want to fight, don’t want to be angry, and certainly don’t want to be disliked. Again, I wouldn’t argue that either end of the spectrum is better or worse than the other. But they are different.
Finally, as Niederle and Westerlund’s academic research so powerfully suggests, organizations run by women tend to be more cautious than those run by men. Which makes great sense. If men are by nature more inclined to take risks (particularly financial ones) and women less so, then groups of men will tend to cluster around risky behaviors while groups of women avoid them. We see evidence of these patterns across the financial sector and in other areas (gambling, online poker, motorcycle jumping) where the bets are large and the risks tangible. There are very few women, still, in hedge funds and venture capital, and yet a disproportionately large number of women (Sherron Watkins at Enron, Brooksley Born at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Coleen Rowley at the FBI) who have acted in recent years as whistle-blowers, calling attention to dangerous behaviors that others chose either to participate in or ignore. Interestingly, women seem more inclined to take the personal downside risks that whistle-blowing entails and less inclined to take the big upside risks that came to dominate global financial markets in the 1990s and 2000s.
Recent years have seen a surge of interest in measuring, or at least defining, the “gender dividend.” Driven by both the relentless flow of women out of leadership positions, and the small but heady number of women (Clinton, Pelosi, Merkel, Sotomayor, Lagarde) reaching for the very top, researchers have tried to identify—analytically and apolitically— just why it matters at all. Are organizations qualitatively different if more women are involved? Do they perform better? Or maybe worse?
*They took saliva samples twice per day, testing for both testosterone and cortisol.
**And, in the end, what precipitated his downfall.
Excerpted from “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection” by Debora L. Spar, published in September 2013 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Debora L. Spar. All rights reserved.