In the summer of 2008, I experienced a massive hormonal shift, moving from the largely-male, testosterone-charged environment of Harvard Business School, where I had spent the first 18 years of my career, to the nearly all-female realm of Barnard College, the all-women's liberal arts college where I now serve as president. Suddenly, after a life spent mostly around men, I was thrust into a totally new environment — an alien, intriguing place where women outnumber men in every classroom and meeting.
Nearly from the start, I started to notice subtle differences that marked an organization run by women from those run by men. The quiet assumption, for example, that everyone would, or at least should, agree. A drive to achieve consensus and prevent outright conflict. It wasn't necessarily better. Or worse. But it was markedly different.
Later, as the financial crisis reverberated across the world and on to my small campus, I was struck by another gender difference. Nearly all of the perpetrators of the greatest economic mess in eight decades were, well, men. What would have happened if more women had been around conference tables and in board rooms, weighing in on crucial financial decisions? Might things have unfolded differently? Could more women in positions of influence have better insulated the global economy from its near implosion?
Across the public and private sectors, women are still underrepresented at the highest levels of power. Women today account for only 15.2% of the board members of Fortune 500 corporations, 16% of partners at the largest law firms, and 19% of surgeons. (I explored much of this research for my upcoming book.) Indeed, there seems to be some sort of odd demographic guillotine hovering between 15% and 20%; some force of nature or discrimination that plows women down once they threaten to multiply beyond a token few.
Even before the C-suite level, women's careers stall out for complicated, heavily ingrained reasons. Women often face difficult decisions about their personal and professional aspirations, decisions that can hold them back at key career junctures and which fall more lightly, if at all, upon their male counterparts. Without even realizing it, many once-equally aggressive women start backing away from their potential: they defer to their more assertive male counterparts to keep the peace, they modestly deflect praise when it is due, they fail to advocate for the raise or promotion they deserve.
To be sure, a handful of extraordinary women have broken through in recent years to the very top tiers of power. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, for example, are among a small but meaningful population of women who have broken through the male-dominated ranks of their profession, forcefully changing the game for the next generation of women. There are PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi, Kraft's Ann Fudge, and the indomitable Martha Stewart.
Yet, impressive as these women are, it is not entirely clear why they remain so relatively rare. One possibility, explored in a fascinating study by John Coates and Joe Herbert of Cambridge University, is that women simply don't have the testosterone for it. The researchers deduced that on the trading floor, higher profits literally correlate with higher levels of the male hormone. Another study, examined in laboratory experiments conducted by Muriel Niederle and Lise Verterlund at the University of Pittsburgh, found that women are far less inclined than men to bet their pay on performance, even if they have evidence to suggest that they are superior performers.
For decades, corporations and other large institutions have sponsored expensive training programs to promote more women into their ranks. They have launched much-needed maternity policies and flexible work arrangements. Most of these initiatives, however, have been pursued to make life easier for the women involved — or, more cynically, to remove the threat of lawsuits or adverse publicity for the firms. But they have not successfully leveled the playing field or created the kind of true diversity that any great organization needs to thrive. To get there, companies need to bring men fully into the quest for diversity, and women need to bring men into their often too-private conversations.
We need women in leadership positions not only because they can manage as well as men but because they manage differently than men. We need them because they tend — over time and in the aggregate — to make different kinds of decisions and bring different ideas to the table. We need women who will approach risk from a different perspective, who take an altered view of time and conflict, and who understand diversity as something more than an abstract theory. We need women who operate as managers, not just as employees or critics; who are as competitive for themselves as they are for their children. And we need more men to recognize that having women around the table isn't just a nice thing to do. It makes for a better table.