A lot has been written about the positive impact to the bottom line when corporations include more women on their boards. At it’s most simplistic, corporations recognize the value of a woman’s different life experiences in corporate decision making, along with a greater understanding of what types of services or products would interest female clients. However, the research goes much further than this to include the different and complimentary ways that women process information and make decisions. A recent Harvard Business Review article “ Defend Your Research: What Makes a Team Smarter? More Women” examines the impact that including more women has on teams.
The research found that “teams are more than just a collection of the best talent”. We know from watching and playing on sports teams that it takes more than just the team with the best athletic talent to win the tournament. Team dynamics, cohesiveness and strategy also come into play.
The business school researchers found that highly successful teams working on intellectual tasks were not the teams that had simply the smartest people on them. Like sports teams there is a team dynamic at play. While studying team process is not new – looking at teams from a gender perspective is a relatively new area of research.
In order to be high functioning, teams working on intellectual problems must also “listen to each other, share criticism constructively, have open minds and not be autocratic”. Since many studies have shown that women tend to score higher than men on tests of social sensitivity (EQ or Emotional Intelligence) – people with these skills (whether they be women or men) will usually produce better results than a team whose strength is primarily higher IQ’s.
All types of teams benefit from having a gender balanced membership – litigation and negotiation teams, management teams, partnership teams, corporate teams, teams making presentations to clients – any group that wants to enhance it’s performance is stronger when it calls on the skills of both genders.
Recent research by neurobiologists has shown that men and women’s brains process information and make decisions in different but complimentary ways. When we have a better understanding of these differences, we can capitalize on these strengths and create a stronger team. When this understanding is lacking, assumptions can be made that the decision making process of the opposite gender is somehow flawed or less valid and their opinion can be discounted.
One example of dismissing the other gender’s decision-making process occurs when women ask more questions around an issue than their male colleagues. Men may deliberately restrain themselves from asking too many questions so as not to appear uncertain or slow to grasp an issue. Men may then judge a woman’s questions the same way and discount her opinion or make assumptions about her competence. Neurobiologists have shown that the female brain multi-focuses more naturally than the male brain. As a result, women will typically gather more information prior to making a decision. This is not indecisiveness or uncertainty but simply a different way that women process information and make decisions. When the group can call on the decision-making processes of both genders, the outcome can be better.
In a recent Forbes article titled “The ‘Terrible Truth’ About Women on Corporate Boards” the author states that:
The “terrible truth” is the growing knowledge that women tend to exhibit different leadership attributes than men, not better or worse, merely different. They tend to be holistic rather than linear thinkers, they tend to negotiate in a win/win rather than a win/lose manner, they tend to be sensitive to subliminal cues, and comfortable with ambiguity.
Creating teams of balanced genders as well as other diverse viewpoints (such as different cultural or professional viewpoints) is increasingly being taught in business schools as providing better results. Increasingly, General Counsel are looking for more gender balanced or diverse teams of lawyers when considering which law firm to hire.
When women leave the workplace especially law firms, it is not always due to work life balance issues as it is sometimes assumed. Often, it is because they do not feel valued or because they feel that their contributions are being discounted. Understanding the contributions that women bring to law can be an important step in keeping women in the practice while strengthening the overall results of the legal team or firm.