A more altruistic world through female leadership?

Educ.Child 22

A Hiroshima survivor declared a few years back that every country should be governed by a woman with young children. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister who gave birth to her first child during her initial mandate and showed great altruism in her handling of the Auckland attacks and the Covid-19 pandemic, is a wonderful example of how to « make compassion great again » within government. For Vjosa Osman, who holds a PhD in legal sciences and is the first woman to preside the Kosovo assembly, the Covid crisis has shone a light on the strong leadership of women, not only because of their clarity but also thanks to the empathy and the communication abilities they displayed throughout their decision-making and policies : « when women hold high offices at the political or national level, they participate in pushing forward and enacting more balanced policies, more attuned to gender issues, more respectful of the environment, and more forward-looking. »[1]

I once met a former ambassador of the United-States who spoke of a time she had been invited to a negociation between high officials from several African countries over some issue (which I can’t recall precisely). When she was asked to introduce herself, she closed off by asking ; « How come there are no women at the negociating table ? » Someone answered : « because they are more willing to make concessions. » « Bingo ! » she said, « that’s exactly what you need the most ! »

The fight for women to gain access to leadership positions must be at the heart of the evolution of businesses and of our organizational models. This not only means arguing for legitimate equality but also understanding that without women these organizations are depriving themselves of precious assets.

I’ve often heard the Dalai Lama say he is a firm-believer in feminism. This is how he explains his reasoning : « Nomadic hunting-gathering tribes were equalitarian societies not governed by any chief. Then came the age of sedentary agriculture and the start of wealth accumulation. Trouble-makers emerged and it became necessary to call on chiefs to maintain order. Physical strength being essential to the task, the domination of men began.

Then came the age of education, intelligence and reason, fields where men and women are equal. Though there is still much progress to be made, we have all more or less stepped into the age of equality between men and women.
If we want to prepare the future, it seems like the ultimate quality, the one society needs most, is altruism, the willingness to take care of others and feel concern for them. And women tend to be more thoughtful and compassionate than men. This may be originally due to their maternal instinct which drives them to be particularly attentive to their child’s needs – to wonder if they are aching, if they are thirsty- and to be more willing than men to show affection and compassion. Faced with the need to promote the development of a more altruistic society, it seems desirable then to enter the « age of women ». So as far as I’m concerned , I am a « feminist. »

When the Dalai Lama shared this view at the Peace conference in Vancouver in 2009, which was attended by four Nobel Peace price female laureates, Mary Robinson, first woman to be president of Ireland and former High Commissioner to the United Nations for Human Rights, made this comment : « If I say I’m a feminist, no one is surprised. But if the Dalai Lama says he’s a feminist, that really rattles people’s minds ! »

The Dalai Lama often adds that when the time comes when women hold greater influence in society, the next Dalai Lama not only could be a woman but most likely should be.

And Mary-Ann Mason, former Dean at UC Berkeley and the wife of my friend Paul Ekman’s psychologist, would tell me half-kiddingly : « Women who only demand equality with men are greatly lacking ambition ! »

The patriarchal system prevails in most hierarchical businesses and institutions leading to, among others things, women being under-represented in positions of responbility and power. Peter Guy Northouse, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, defines leadership as « the process by which an individual influences a group of people in order to reach an organisational goal »[2].

The essence of a leader hence resides in his or her influence, meaning the ability to transmit values to the greatest number of people. These ideas of value and influence invite us to choose and determine what we want to be, the organisational framework we wish to embody, as well as decide what we wish to pass on and leave behind for future generations. What are our intentions ? To perpetuate sexist stereotypes which turn women’s lives into mazes[3] and convey a false image of masculinity which contributes to social imbalances ? Or do we choose to evolve collectively?

Frédéric Laloux worked for a large company for many years, and this has left him deeply unsatisfied. In his outstanding book Reinventing organizations[4], he notes that in many businesses only the masculine part – determination, rationality, rigidity – is valued. The feminine mindset is kept hidden, under veil, or simply abandoned. This rejection of consideration for others, of cooperation, of empathic sensibility, of our vulnerabiltiy, leads to emotional imbalance which often leads to a burnout.

A study conducted using the ethical leadership questionnaire (ELQ) among 398 school administrators in Quebec and Ontario has made it possible to better understand the ethical dimensions at play and the ethical sensibilities of these leaders. At the end of the research, the results confirmed that the three ethical dimensions – the ethics of criticism, the ethics of justice and the ethics of thoughtfulness or care – can be observed as much in men as in women. Yet the manifestation of an ethical sensibility is more pronounced in women[5].

Whatever our biological makeup, we are all toyed with diverse emotions. Everyone fears suffering and aspires to happiness. The masculine norms which permeate current management models underestimate the importance of emotions (though they come to play in all our decisions) and don’t sufficiently take into account motivations beside personal interest, such as altruism and solidarity. As economist Denis Sower points out, « it is time to listen to the voice of care, alongside the voice of reason ». The voice of thoughtfulness is necessary. It is based on a different interpretation of human nature and can bring into companies and the economy, as in our existence, empathy – the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes –, compassion for those who are suffering, and altruism – which includes all these qualities. Added onto the voice of reason, the voice of care can fundamentaly change our willingness to contribute to common wealth.

Actively pursuing ethical training and the inclusion of women at leadership positions is a true necessity. Being aware of the complementarity that exists between the feminine and masculine mindsets, at the individual as well as at the societal level, within public and private institutions, could allow us to consider situations from a more open perspective, develop our inner potentials as well as collectively bring about a social equilibrium that is crucial for our future.

Find out more by joining us on March 8, 2021 at 7pm for a LIVE roundtable talk with Laurence Bibas, Hermès Garanger and Carolne Lesire >>>

Karuna-Shechen, the humanitarian organization we founded 20 years ago, is taking concrete action in Asia to support women and offer them leadership opportunities. For more info >>>


[1] Why is women’s leadership not in the headlines / Take Five: “Women leaders around the world have demonstrated successful management of the pandemic”
[2] Peter Guy Northouse, Leadership theory and practice
[3] Women and Leadership (french)
[4] Laloux, Frédéric. Reinventing organizations : a guide to creating organizations inspired by the next stage of human consciouness. Diateino, 2014.
[5] Leadership and Gender : neither Pink nor Blue, but rather Purple

[6] Dennis Snower, opening speech at the Global Economic Symposium (GES), 2004.