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- 9 Dec 2011
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Harnessing The Power Of Both Sexes On Corporate Boards

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Dr. Bob Deutsch, cognitive anthropologist and president of Brain Sells consulting firm, highlights why the male and female, together in the boardroom, may be better placed to break new ground.


Nowadays, a word increasingly heard around the C-Suite, the water cooler and the media screen is “uncertainty.” It has always been true that knowing the answers to important questions requires expertise. In today’s seemingly un-decodable landscape, though, we often do not even know the right questions to ask.

New dynamics fashioned by the intersection of the global economy, the digital world and the geopolitical context has rendered predictability opaque. One thing is certain: we need multiple viewpoints and sensibilities toiling collectively to arrive at a firmer footing. More female corporate board members working in concert with the male of the species might help. This is not a quota issue. It is a cognitive requirement for a more successful collective intelligence.


 It is insufficient to have only 15% women seated around the boardrooms of the Fortune 500 


In this post 9-11 and post-Ponzi world, a larger mix of worldviews is necessary to understand things beyond their immediate surface manifestation. One implication: It is insufficient to have only 15% women seated around the boardrooms of the Fortune 500. When men and women work together, their different cognitive temperaments – in alchemy and in mutual oversight – can create visions and solutions that have a better “fit” to the current environment of complexity.

My specialty is not gender differences, but as cognitive anthropologist I study how the mind works, how people “make meaning,” how people form attachments to things and how people make decisions. In that search I have inadvertently uncovered something fundamental about the sexes:


Woman Cycle, Men Consummate

As a population, the male is oriented to the present, the concrete, the visual, the “hit,” the win, the “me.” Evolutionarily speaking, the male must bring home the bacon. No excuses. The male is in-the-now and, above all else, a pragmatist.

In contrast, the female is oriented to the conceptual, to underlying dynamics, to the relationship between things, and to stability over the long-term. Because women intrinsically cycle, they tend to experience and understand patterns over time. They are more sensitive to how things move and mutate. They are more prone to resolve conflicting meanings by creating higher-order concepts. When the game is about paradox (which it so often is, nowadays), women have home field advantage.


 As a population, the male is oriented to the present, the concrete, the visual, the “hit,” the win, the “me" 


The benevolent leader has always been the one who rides the cusp between two paradoxical vectors: Being familiar and being mythic. Being accessible and being The One who knows the way. Women can often be nurturing while still having a spine of steel.

In business, mixes or blends of any kind are too infrequent. Things tend to be siloed. Neat, stereotypical boxes satisfy the need for simplicity, but usually don’t foot the bill. Mixed male and female groups who combine the different gender-based ways of perceiving causality, time and power, tend to compose better problem-structuring and problem-solving entities compared with same sex groups. Concatenations and concoctions of cognitive gender differences can frame and enliven each other.


Male: Do what you set out to do and finish the job.
Female: Evolve.

Male: Achieve.
Female: Experience.

Male: Stay on top of things.
Female: Create good relationships.

Males and females also have different aesthetics of risk.

Together males and females are better than each separately. They could help each other bring out the best in he boardroom.


 the female is oriented to the conceptual, to underlying dynamics, to the relationship between things, and to stability over the long-term 


After the fall of the Soviet Union, when Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, one of the things he said was, what the world needs now, is more understanding, not more explanation.

Explanation entails seeing the world as governed by finite laws that humankind can direct through successive approximations. Understanding requires comprehending meaning from the inside-out, in its unfolding. To understand, the world can’t be approached solely from a cold, hard, logical stance. Women can bring more of this understanding to the mission of a corporate board.

Capabilities such as reading each others’ emotions and moods, allowing time to listen and hear, trusting others who are outside your own biography and engaging in innovative metaphorical thinking does not align well with alma mater or McKinsey-like management spreadsheets. Each person on a corporate board should be able to find in The Other something that is familiar and something that challenges one’s familiar.


 When male and female sensibilities work together, there is a heightened chance for creating new solutions that reflect principles underlying a more enlightened strategic outlook as well as a socially responsible world 


This ongoing negotiation between soloists collaborating to produce something new is the art of corporate leadership. The exchange and cross-fertilization created by males exiting the world of an all-male board as more women enter that domain could cause all to find themselves in a new light.

In this era of high uncertainty many problems seem caught in an eddy. We now need a deeper understanding not only of institutions and of technologies, but also of human nature and the nature of mind that contribute to and can solve our commercial and political challenges. If we had more individuals and groups with cognitive inclinations from both genders, those bodies just might add some innovative points of view to the mix of ideas already on the table.

Gender juxtapositions around the boardroom table can give rise to exciting ideas that could even override assumptions of a zero-sum game. When male and female sensibilities work together, there is a heightened chance for creating new solutions that reflect principles underlying a more enlightened strategic outlook as well as a socially responsible world. These principles are:


Pattern, not just point. The ability to perceive more than the metric of a data point and appreciate the underlying pattern (idea) that gives rise to the surface numbers; this is required for strategy development.

Quality, not just quantity (size). Recognizing that bigger and more is not necessarily better; and that a steady build is often better than an impulsive but fleeting response.

Connectedness, not just individuals. Communality can reign over dominance; and that we must create a new narrative to replace hegemony. We are all bound together.

Authenticity, not just immediate appearance. Persona, biography (or history), and current contingency must all be factored in, and that universal principles underlie situational particularities.

Society, not just markets. Markets are numbers. Markets can be counted and the goodies duly noted. But numbers are not people. People have feelings.

Quality of Life, not just incomes. There are material and spiritual needs made up of individual wants and musts, but these too are cast in the context of a social matrix.

Reasonableness, not extremism or absolutism. All issues have grays, and exaggerations to one side or the other only blind us from the fact that we are all perpetrators and victims. The great task before us is Imagining ‘The Other.’


Men and women working together on a corporate board is a difference that could make a difference. It could help move corporate America a step further passed being “right” to being “smart.”

Some corporate and some global problems we face seem not to give us much time. It is our subjective perception of time itself that we must alter. A he-man alone cannot always carry the day. The male and female, together, may be better able to break new ground.


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Bob Deutsch, Ph.D., is a cognitive anthropologist, founder and president of Brain Sells, a strategic advisory practice that works with companies to reinvent how they assess the mind and mood of various publics and then communicates with them.

www.brain-sells.com