Giving more importance to the feminine side

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This post is part of a 8-part series of newsletters was originally written for Katerva, an NGO dedicated to the identification, evaluation and acceleration of disruptive sustainable innovation; it was first published 13th March 2020.

In our six-part series we talk about shifts in mindset and behaviour that are required if we are serious about moving towards sustainability. So far we have covered ‘Understanding connectedness and thinking in systems’ – looking at the bigger picture, ‘Letting go off the illusion of control control‘ – accepting that what is truly within the sphere of our influence is rather limited, and ‘Thinking into the future while acting now’ – which is about making decisions today that ensure that there will be a worthwhile future for our children.


What is the shift required?

Before saying anything else: it will take all of us to save us.  The call to give more importance to the feminine side it not about ‘better or worse’ nor ‘right or wrong’. It is also not about ‘women versus men’ but about female and male values, both of which are in all of us. It is about looking at what is ‘different’, and what might most appropriate, given the world we live in today.

There has been much debate about how much these differences are due to social conditioning or ‘hard-wired’ – in his book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (1992) John Gray has made a strong argument for the latter.  A study that involved scanning nearly a thousand brains of both men and women, led by Ruben Gur of the University of Pennsylvania, found that the brains of men have a stronger connection between the front and back whereas women’s brains connected better from left to right. The former is associated with being better able to connect what you see with what you do – which is what is needed when hunting, whereas the latter is associated with potentially showing greater emotional awareness, and multitask.

Whether this is so, it seems that certain values and behaviours are more frequently observed in women, others in men. That is not really the problem. The problem is that one set of values and behaviours is valued more than the other.

Let’s take a look at the status quo of gender balance in positions of power in business and politics; in 2019 we find the following:

  • 87% of global businesses have at least one woman in a senior management role.
  • 29% of senior management roles are held by women globally (the highest number ever on record). Eastern Europe leads with 32%. Latin America lags with 25%.
  • Out of those 29% in senior management roles, 15% hold the role of CEO / managing director (human resources director is with 43% the most frequently held position).
  • 24.3 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women as of February 2019.
  • As of June 2019, 11 women are serving as Head of State and 12 are serving as Head of Government.

There is no doubt, the world is strongly dominated by male leaders.

Are people happy about it? According to a 2-year study by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio, involving 64,000 people in 18 nations, and 80 on-the-ground interviews in 13 countries with start-ups, political leaders, NGO’s, educators and more, it seems that many of us are not.

If the questions is asked differently, whether the world would be a better place if men thought more like women, the percentages are even higher – something confirmed by a more recent study.

The call for more femininity is becoming even louder when looking at a further aspect of the study. Half of the participants were ask to categorise 125 human traits as masculine, feminine of neither. The other 32,000 were asked to indicate how important they felt these same 125 traits were for solving problems and leaders in the 21st century.

8 of the top 10 traits considered to be key in the 21st century had been classified as female traits.

Returning to our first three topics the connection becomes even clearer:

  • ‘Understanding connectedness and thinking in systems’ relates to collaboration;
  • ‘Letting go off the illusion of control control relates to being flexible, patient and intuitive;
  • ‘Thinking into the future while acting now’ relates to ‘plans for the future’.

It was not only the traits thought essential for leadership that were predominantly female, the picture for morality and happiness were similar. More details can be found in the book The Athena Doctrine (John Wiley & Sons,  2013).

John Gerzema sums up the argument for embracing female values more in a speech he gave April 2013 At Columbia Business School, “Feminine values are an unlocked source of strategic advantage in the 21st century.” You can listen to that speech below.

John Gerzema on the value of embracing female values
Indeed, when we look at the cost as well as lost returns, drawing more heavily on females and the female side seems to be a no-brainer:

  • United Nations Development Programme reports that, on average, gender inequality costs Sub-Saharan Africa $95 billion, equivalent of 6 per cent of GDP per year. Along similar lines the OECD Development Centre reported in June 2016 that “Gender-based discrimination in social institutions costs up to USD 12 trillion for the global economy.”
  • There is not only a cost of inequality, it also seems that, according to a study by First Round Capital, a seed-stage venture firm focused on tech companies, women deliver higher returns. While companies with a female founder performed 63% better than those with all-male founding teams, companies with women CEOs received only 5% of venture dollars in 2016, according toPitchBook. And, again according to PitchBook, that number hasn’t changed in 10 years.
Why isn’t it happening?

This is where it gets a little complicated, and interwoven with the previous topics. It seems that achieving the previous mindset shifts could be achieved more easily by giving more room to female qualities yet the hold of male values is very strong, and often very subtle. For example,

  • study found that when women introduce men, they used the professional title 95 per cent of the time. When men introduced women, the figure was 49 per cent.
  • Several surveys asking students at top US business schools about their career expectations have revealed single females express less ambition when told their answers will be shared with male counterparts, and are more ambitious when told their answers will be kept private. The effect was not present for women in relationships or men, regardless of their relationship status, suggesting only single women feel pressure to hide their ambitions in the presence of potential partners.
  • At age five, girls and boys were equally likely to associate ‘brilliance’ with their own gender. Though, by ages six and seven, only 48% of girls selected their own gender as “really, really smart”, compared to 65% of boys.
  • In 2014 Alison Woods, a Harvard Business School academic conducted some experiments to see whether there were any biases toward certain groups. Even when pitching the same idea men were 60% more likely to get funding than women. Interestingly attractiveness seems to be rather important: attractive men were 36% more likely to be successful than their less attractive counterparts.

None of this is caused by women not being assertive enough. A study by Harvard’s Stephen Turban, Laura Freeman and Ben Waber suggests that differences in promotion rates between men and women in a particular company were not due to their behaviour but to how they were treated, i.e. that biases were at work. According to them, a ‘bias’ is at the root of people behaving in the same way but being treated differently. They state that, “Our data implies that gender differences may lie not in how women act but in how people perceive their actions.”

The deeply ingrained belief that there is a ‘right and wrong’ is a the root of this, and, until very recently, the dominant world view was that the male way is the right way.  As Iain McGilchrist argues in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009) “The right hemisphere gives sustained, broad, open, vigilant alertness, whereas the left hemisphere gives narrow, sharply focused attention to detail (the male principle). The left brain conceives of the world as a set of decontextualised, static, material, abstract things, whereas the right brain holistically embraces a world of evolving, spiritual, empathic, concrete beings (the female principle). McGilchrist argues that, “The left-brain should be the servant of the right brain. It is the right brain that sees the world as a whole. But, at least in western culture, the left brain (or the left brain way of seeing the world) has been taking over. The servant is usurping the master – the emissary has become the master.”  Or to quote Einstein, who is widely quoted of saying, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.”

Is it the same for everyone?

Masculinity/ femininity is the fourth of Hofstede’s dimensions along which national cultures can be differentiated and understood.   As he describes it, “The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, Femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.”

Geert Hofstede introduces the Short Term / Long Term Dimension

You can compare up to four countries across Hofstede’s dimensions here; below a few examples as well as the world at a glance.The table below, offering a more detailed comparison, is well aligned with the work of  John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio.

High Masculine

High Feminine

Social norms
  • Ego oriented
  • Money and things are important
  • Live in order to work
  • Relationship oriented
  • Quality of life and people are important
  • Work in order to live
Politics & economics
  • Economic growth high priority
  • Conflict solved through force
  • Environment protection high priority
  • conflict solved through negotiation
  • Most important in life
  • Only men can be priests
  • Less important in life
  • Both men and women can be priests
  • Larger gender wage gap
  • Fewer women in management
  • Preference for higher pay
  • Smaller gender wage gap
  • More women in management
  • Preference for fewer working hours
Family & school
  • Traditional family structure
  • Girls cry, boys don’t; boys flight, girls don’t
  • Failing is a disaster
  • Flexible family structure
  • Both boys and girls cry; neither fight


  • Failing is a minor accident

Below a world map that show where different countries are  regards to emphasising feminine or masculine values.

What can be done about it?

Did you know that pink, considered to be a softer version of red, was the colour of choice for boys back in the Victorian era, and that the colour blue was associated with the Virgin Mary and therefore femininity?  Advertising in the 1950s changed this when using pink to target girls. It seems that much of what we consider right (appropriate) or wrong (inappropriate) is due to conditioning. It would therefore help to acknowledge the following:

  • that all of us have male and female qualities within us; it is like a toolset we all have, and it is our choice which ones we use and hone.
  • that there is no right or wrong, only a ‘most appropriate’ – which in the 21st century seems to be tipping of the scales towards the need of what are considered to be female values;
  • that, regardless, it will take all of us to save us.

In the end, we all have much more fundamental things in common, than those male and female values that might set us apart, as the table below illustrates.

If this was all a little too heavy, and you need a little light relief, you may want to have a look at Mark Gungor’s take on the brain of men and women.

Who is already doing it?

Here a few examples from Katerva’s nominee pool and beyond the :

  • Away – A “modern smart luggage” company that partnered with Peace Direct to help raise funds for conflict-torn regions around the world.
  • Biobot Analytics – Transforms sewers into public health observatories by collecting and analysing the wastewater containing information about the health of communities. Their first product measures opioids and other drug metabolites in sewage to estimate consumption in cities in an effort to establish harm reduction.
  • GoldieBlox – A line of construction toys and accompanying books that appealed to girls’ strengths while also exercising their spatial skills, a necessary skill for engineers.
  • Gensler – The global design and architecture has implemented a “constellation of stars” model within the company, enabling the more than 5,000 employees to operate collaboratively rather than under a top-down leadership approach.

Check out the 2018 list of America’s Female Founder 100 list for more inspiration here.


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