The Athena Doctrine: The Rise of Feminine Values in Business

Guest post from John Gerzema, whose new book, The Athena Doctrine, examines the rise of feminine traits and values. Part of The Next Women Career Theme.

For centuries, workplaces have been dominated by masculine codes of conduct: Be tough. Buck up. Don’t cry. Those codes are still entrenched today, of course, but their grip on corporate culture is loosening—and feminine values are gaining an ever-stronger foothold. 

Traits like candor, flexibility, patience and vulnerability have emerged as remarkable assets in today’s rising leaders—and, as a result, have trickled down into company culture, reshaping dynamics in both the workplace and society at large.  

In the Athena Doctrine, a book I co-authored with Michael D’Antonio, we examined the changing role of gender traits across the globe. We surveyed 64,000 people in 13 coun­tries across a wide swath of cultural, political and economic diversity. We gathered data from Canada to Chile and Mexico to Indonesia. 

We traveled nearly four times around the world conducting interviews in another 18 nations. We talked to people in the favelas of Peru and in villages in Northern India. We interviewed world political leaders in Brussels and Jerusalem—we even visited the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, where we met the secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission.

Our surveys show that across the globe, people are frustrated by a world long dominated by codes of male thinking and behavior

An ethos of control, aggression and black-and-white thinking has contributed to many of the problems we face today, from wars and income inequality to reckless risk-taking and scandal.  In fact, two-thirds of people feel the world would be a better place if men thought more like women—including 79% of Japanese men; 76% of French and Brazilians and 70% of Germans. Millennials in the highly mas­culine societies of China, Japan, South Korea and India agree even more strongly than women.

That many men were equally frustrated by masculine structures points to the desire to include feminine values into society. And this is already happening. We found that in business, politics and organizations across the globe, the most innovative among us are breaking away from traditional gender structures to be more flexible, collaborative and nurturing.

Across the globe, people are deploying feminine thinking and values to make their business—and the world—a better place.

In Bangladesh, we met Eriko Yamaguchi, a Japanese native who had faced her share of challenges as a bullied child in Japan—hardships that she later translated into an empathetic business model. While in Dhaka at BRAC University’s graduate school of development studies, Eriko watched local people endure strikes, floods, epidemics and economic crises. Determined to make a change in their lives, she resolved to combine her love for fashion and her entrepreneurial spirit to create Motherhouse, a high-end handbag manufacturer.

She might have exploited low-skilled workers in Bangladesh, paying low wages with minimal benefits.  Instead, she patiently taught her employees (who were virtually all men) new skills—making them more marketable in the long run—paid living wages and gave her employees stock options to give them a monetary stake in the success of Motherhouse.

Today, the Motherhouse ethos is distinctly—and successfully—feminine. The company now has eight retail shops in Japan and four in Taiwan. The culture is one of collaboration and teamwork, with open opinion-sharing, free meals and strong sense of camaraderie.  For many of her workers, the photo on their employee ID badge is the first picture they’ve ever had of themselves. Yamaguchi-san not only made life better for these workers, she helped build their esteem.

One critical insight that emerged from our research and conversations with successful leaders was the notion of vulnerability as a strength, rather than a weakness. 

True, the notion of failure as a catalyst to success is a hot button idea these days—and while there is certainly merit to this idea, we discovered that much of this failure may be unnecessary: If we were better at simply admitting what we don't know in the first place, there would be less failure and more progress.  

Leaders who demonstrate vulnerability are more likely to align others, saving time and money, and serve as catalysts for innovation.  

Consider, for instance, Dr. Ijad Madish, a Berlin-based scientist whose vulnerability is reshaping his industry. Though indisputably talented, Madish told us he kept “getting stuck” in his experiments. He asked his peers for help—and quickly learned that asking for help is a sign of great weakness. Yet instead of feeling stymied, Madish felt inspired—and subsequently launched ResearchGate, a “Social Network for Scientists” that aims to accelerate scientific discovery by getting medical researchers out of their cubicles and collaborating. Instead of unchecked egos, Madish encourages scientists to share what they don’t know, recognizing that by disclosing the hurdles they face, scientists will discover faster, better solutions to overcome them—benefiting not only their own work, but society as a whole. Today, ResearchGate has two million members from two hundred countries. In this way, Madish’s feminine values have effectively penetrated an entire industry.

Intertwined with vulnerability is another fundamental tenet of successful leadership: collaboration. 

For those in positions of power and influence, there is a great temptation to believe that stature confers intelligence. And yet across the board, the leaders we spoke with were keenly aware of their own strengths and limitations. They did not posture; instead, they sought counsel from people before making decisions.  The most revealing example of this was our time spent in Reykjavik with members of the fledgling new Icelandic government, who were revamping their country’s constitution. There, we met Orn Bardur Jonsson, a Lutheran Minister who was named a constitutional committee member of the new provisional government. These leaders were left to clean up in the wake of a financial crisis that burst both the Icelandic economy and the people’s trust. In order to repair credibility, they made the choice to open-source a new constitution, drawing from the wisdom of the crowd to reset the country’s values, expectations and commitments.  By listening to and conferring with its citizens, Iceland’s government revived the people’s faith, restored its own credibility—and shifted the institutional gender dynamics across an entire nation. 

We met remarkable men and women around the world who were applying a feminine lens to solving challenges. And this shift toward the feminine does not portend “the end of men,” but it does suggest a natural balancing that vastly increases the capacity of both men and women to solve problems and create a good life. In our surveys, 81 percent of peo­ple say that man or woman, you need both masculine and feminine traits to thrive in today’s world and we found that people who think in a more feminine way are nearly twice as optimistic about their future.

From this point of view, an embrace of feminine qualities should be thought of as a competitive advantage, not unlike a breakthrough technology or a major market insight.

All leaders, male or female, innately possess feminine qualities like empathy, candor and vulnerability. The difference lies in which leaders choose to suppress those qualities, and which choose to leverage them to establish a better, more open, and ultimately more productive organizational culture. 

John Gerzema is a social strategist and best-selling author who uses data and journalism to help companies anticipate and adapt to new interests and demands. John is a Fellow with the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College and a foremost expert on emergent leadership and executive chairman of WPP Group’s BAV Consulting. His new book; The Athena Doctrine examines the rise of feminine traits and values, with Pulitzer-Prize winner Michael D’Antonio. @johngerzema

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