Diversity brings greater variety in thinking, more exchange of information and more challenging of the status quo.
When people ask whether having women in leadership roles improves governance and decision-making, the answer is yes - but perhaps not for the reasons many of us may think.
It’s tempting to infer it’s because women bring different and special qualities like strong interpersonal skills or higher levels of warmth. These messages often come from well-meaning advocates of more women in leadership. They’re common among advertisers too. For example, one global media company shares its ‘insights’ on the ‘emotional economy’ with this forecast: ‘Female traits such as emotional intelligence, empathy, vulnerability and intuition will be the future drivers of business.’
Only thing is they’re not female traits, they’re human traits. It’s a flawed cognitive shortcut that reinforces gender stereotypes. Men can bring empathy and vulnerability when they’re supported to challenge gender norms and biases.
Studies examining sex differences about people's ways of thinking and behaviour find no differences between men and women; rather it is socialisation that plays an enormous part in perpetuating gender stereotypes. It is these stereotypes about the idea of differences that actually means women are continuing to be held back, specifically in leadership roles.
“Context explains any sex differences that exist in the workplace” write Catherine H. Tinsley and Robin J Ely in their recent Harvard Business Review article (May-June 2018). “What most people get wrong about men and women: Research shows the sexes aren’t so different”.
They write that: “Beliefs in sex differences have staying power partly because they uphold conventional gender norms, preserve the gender status quo, and require no upheaval of existing organisational practices or work arrangements. But they are also the path of least resistance for our brains.”
So, how exactly does diversity of background and thinking make a difference to team dynamics – whether in the boardroom, in small businesses, or on the customer front-line?
Essentially, it comes down to how we process information and solve problems, according to organisational scientists and psychologists. “When we hear dissent from someone who is different from us,” writes Professor Katherine W Phillips from Columbia Business School in Scientific American,“it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.”
Phillips says "when members of a group notice that they are socially different from one another, they change their expectations. They anticipate differences of opinion and perspective. They assume they will need to work harder to come to a consensus. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.” Put simply, the benefits of diversity of background such as gender and culture come from the way team anticipate and deal with different view and alternative perspectives.
When set up with the right foundations – including minimising unconscious biases that can distort reasoning - diversity brings greater variety in thinking, more exchange of information and more challenging of the status quo. That’s when new ideas emerge, and potentially unethical practices are more likely to be questioned.
Gender, cultural and other visible forms of diversity are a key way of getting the cognitive jolt or ‘informational diversity’ teams need to reduce the risks of an executive echo-chamber and improve decision-making.