Women and Leadership in Times of Complexity

We Can Do It by J. Howard Miller

“The Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” – Aretha Franklin & The Eurythmics

The old cliches of where a woman’s place ought to be have changed to mean: anywhere she wants to be. Women are poised to drive change in the age of complexity leading us all to consider why this might be the case and what we can learn from it.

There was a time when women repeated the line in graphic artist J. Howard Miller‘s famous piece: We Can Do It! Now, as Aretha and Annie sing, they are doing it for themselves…and in spades. The ‘it’ is leading and innovating in times of great complexity and change and not necessarily by role, but by action. When the challenges of ‘wicked problems‘ become great and pervasive, it is women not men who are stepping up to lead and that might have a lot to do with design. How?

Design and design thinking is fundamentally about strategies used to create, shape and influence. There are many definitions of the concept, but generally speaking it is about finding / clarifying problems at their root, framing them within a larger context, and addressing them using empathic methods. Quite often this involves intense engagement with the issue and those whom the issue most affects and these are areas where women are doing well.

Drawing on the growing literature base on design thinking and a series of ongoing interviews I have done as part of the Design Thinking Foundations project, there are three areas that sit at the core of this way of approaching problems. As it turns out, women are pretty good at all of them:

  1. Empathy. Getting to learn more about the person / people who are designing for / with by stepping into their shoes is a powerful vehicle for gaining insight into the nature of the problem at hand, its frames, and possible ways forward. Research looking at males and females consistently shows women expressing higher levels of emotional empathy than men (e.g,  ). More recent work has begun to explore the ways in which women relate empathically to others, whereas men are more prone to what can be called Machevellian tendencies;
  2. Literacy. By this I refer to a constellation of skills that sit at the intersection of craft and knowledge to address a particular problem. A designer’s literacy most often includes creativity and the ability to analyze problems. These skills can fall within artistic realms, but also scientific and mathematical realms. Here in Canada, a recent report on the state of education finds that boys are lagging in literacy scores and, for the first time, science scores. They are tied with girls in math. The report (PDF-summary) adds greater weight to the shifting nature of boys and girls.
  3. Engagement. Designers — whether they are introverts or extroverts — need to be able to engage in diverse social situations in order to create useful products and services. Early work on online social networks is suggestive of this, building on a body of work looking at the strength of associations between gender, emotion and socialization (see 2010 chapter of the same name)

It used to be that women would express these three areas in social roles that were of lower status than men and generally following male leads (e.g., homemaker, assistant). However, the balance is starting to shift and women are no longer waiting for men to give things up, they are taking things for themselves. Indeed, women are becoming the new leaders and are designing themselves lives that will keep them in this position for the foreseeable future if indeed design is the new competitive advantage as has been suggested by Roger Martin at the Rotman School of Business in Toronto.

Lest we think this is isolated to Canada or the United States, the rise of women and girls is being seen globally. Earlier this year, the Economist explored how Asian women are marrying less and marrying later. One of the reasons is that they are no longer tied to men in the same way and are less willing to fill a role that sees them often as less than in their marriages. Indeed, Asian women are eschewing the practice altogether in rates never before seen and may be on the cusp of instilling deep and profound social change.

A lot of Asians are not marrying later. They are not marrying at all. Almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried; probably half of those will always be. Over one-fifth of Taiwanese women in their late 30s are single; most will never marry. In some places, rates of non-marriage are especially striking: in Bangkok, 20% of 40-44-year old women are not married; in Tokyo, 21%; among university graduates of that age in Singapore, 27%.(Economist,  August 20, 2011)

One of the reasons is that women are more often placed in roles of great social complexity in the family/social sphere, yet without the power to make key decisions. This might mean child raising (often held as the ideal example of complexity), negotiating and planning social engagements, and doing much of the emotional maintenance in relationships. While these are not universal and suggestive of stereotype, there are libraries full of research that have found these roles tend to be persistent and consistent across most Western countries. Until now.  These are also the kinds of skills that are needed in complex systems and to create means to navigate through them.

Women are no longer satisfied (nor should they be) with the roles assigned to them by men, but are shaping and crafting new ones for themselves and reclaiming and challenging outdated, sexist ones. A terrific example of this is the SlutWalk movement that started in Toronto in reaction to public statements by a police officer aimed at helping prevent rape that placed blame on victims, suggesting that women “stop dressing like sluts”. Here, women just took action and men followed.

As societies, we will (and do) need leaders and innovators who know how to manage complexity well and design solutions and women may be the first place to look because they are doing it already.

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