It is inevitable that women will have more and more influence in the workplace. According to the New York Times, “Women now make up 58% of those enrolled in two- and four-year colleges and are, overall, the majority in graduate schools and professional schools too.”
In “A Woman's Nation,” the first chapter of a report co-produced by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, Shriver indicates that mothers are the primary breadwinners in four in 10 families, up from the approximately 11% of mothers who were the primary breadwinners in 1967. And, the percentage of women in managerial and professional ranks also continues to swell. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it reached 51.4% in 2009, nearly double the 26% tally in 1980, and there's no indication of a reversal.
The question is ― How will women wield their emergent power?
When I was in third grade, one of my classmates (a boy I'll call Dennis) was picking on one of my friends. Diplomacy not being my strong suit, a scuffle ensued, and in my eight-year-old zeal to vanquish this playground bully, when the opportunity presented itself, I kicked him where a boy is most vulnerable.
In “The End of Men”, Hanna Rosin writes that “the more women dominate, the more they behave, fittingly, like the dominant sex.” Illustrative of this shift, she points to the advertising aired during the 2010 Super Bowl. Instead of ads portraying men as conquerors, undefeatable, powerful and testosterone charged, the men in the Dodge Charger ad are shown as emasculated by women's power. Pop culture icon Lady Gaga's music video with Beyoncé for “Telephone” depicts women on a homicidal shooting spree, dangerous and unstoppable. Or consider the bumper sticker “My daughter serves in the U.S. Army. Because your son is a wuss.”
For years women have slung seemingly harmless one-liners at men, perhaps as an emotional palliative for feelings of oppression. At their core, though, these remarks might be corrosive and belittling. “Power corrupts…but so does powerlessness,” as Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote. Is there a risk as women increasingly take the reins at work that these pejorative bonmots will extend to the workplace? Or as seen through the eyes of my third-grade self, is there the risk of a turnabout attitude of “now it's my turn to bully you”?
I hope not.
In part because if women forget how to speak softly, even as we carry a big stick, we will forfeit the feminine strengths of interpersonal connectedness, care, sensitivity, and responsibility to people (as enumerated by social psychologist Carol Gilligan) ― a forfeit with repercussions equally concerning as the consequences of stunting men.
Moreover, there is compelling evidence that there is a competitive advantage for corporations that can effectively harness the unique strengths of men and women. In the white paper “High-Performance Entrepreneurs: Women in High Tech,” venture capitalist Cindy Padnos, in referencing the research of David Gaddis Ross of Columbia University, writes that“organizations most inclusive of women in top management achieve 35% higher ROE and 34% better total return to shareholders versus their peers.” This same paper cites findings out of the University of Michigan and Cornell University “that the IPOs of companies with greater gender diversity outperformed by as much as 30%,” and a study by the University of Michigan and Loyola University indicates that “groups with greater gender diversity perform significantly better in solving complex problems”.
With numbers like “women make up just 3% of the chief executives leading the 500 largest public companies,” a cautionary tale about how women wield power may seem unwarranted, certainly early. Yet, statistics like 51% of all managers are now women and the current pop-culture zeitgeist suggest otherwise. As this cultural trend of women becoming more dominant unfolds, the corporations that win will be those that can avoid a backlash against men and reach across the chromosome aisle, engaging and involving both women and men, valuing the unique talents and strengths that they each bring to the table.