Women CEOs: Bold Enough to Be a Woman?

10/28/2011 02:48 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2011

Virginia M Rometty, new CEO of IBM, joins Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, to be among the elite 2 percent of women who hold CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies. We still have a long way to go, but now that we see more women in positions of power, the question is: How will they use their power? Will they fulfill the late congresswoman Bella Abzug's prediction that in the 21st century, power will not change women; women will transform the meaning of power? Will they dispel the testosterone cloud of aggression and domination that has driven companies to ruin as well as success? IBM and HP have been bitter rivals throughout their history; will the king of the mountain battle become a cat fight?

Studies from McKinsey to Catalyst continually find that that companies in the US and Europe with the most women on their boards, and who have a higher number of executive women, perform better organizationally and financially. This is obviously not always the case: Carly Fiorina is an example, whose tenure ended in acrimony when she was forced out in 2005 over disappointing financials.

However, the 25 Fortune 500 companies with the best records for promoting women to senior positions have 69 percent higher returns than the Fortune 500 median for their industry.

The results of a McKinsey Global Survey in 2010 found 72 percent of executives "believe there is a direct connection between a company's gender diversity and its financial success." The study showed that the companies that had the highest levels of gender diversity also had higher returns on equity, operating results, and growth in market valuation than the averages in their respective sectors.

Research from other organizations, such as Catalyst, support these findings.

So what exactly do women bring to the table that makes such a difference? Recent research on collective intelligence sheds some light on the issue.

Social scientists, such as Christopher Chabris at MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence, Anita Williams Woolley at Carnegie Mellon University, have recently begun to systematically examine what they call the "collective intelligence" of groups. Collective intelligence is a measure of how smart the group is, as a whole. Chabris and Woolley's paper, "Evidence for Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups," was reported in the journal Science in October 2010.

What they discovered in their research completely surprised them; it was not something they expected or were looking for. They learned that collective intelligence is not tied to either the smartest person on the team, nor to the average intelligence of the members of the team.

Rather it is something that is greater than any individual contribution or the sum of contributions. It is an emergent property that results from the interactions among the people in the group. What emerges is almost magical: something greater than the sum of its parts. You can call it evolved thinking.

Complexity science shows us that in complex systems, which human groups are, for a positive emergence to occur there must be conditions of mutuality and a level playing field, diversity, and trust. If not, the potential for collective intelligence can easily devolve into group think, where everyone dumbly follows the boss's lead.

The current research on collective intelligence gives us two key results. The first is that the phenomenon is real, that groups can indeed perform at a higher level of creativity than any single individual. We knew this intuitively, of course. It is the second result that is the surprise, and this has to do with the one single predictor that a particular group will have high collective intelligence: at least half the chairs around the table should be occupied by women.

What do women bring to the table that catalyzes evolved thinking? According to Chabris and Woolley it is a superior social sensitivity in reading non-verbal cues and other people's emotions, and a fairness in turn taking.

From my research on women in business, I would characterize their "secret" as the possession and use of what may fairly be called feminine skills. By this I mean relational intelligence, emotional intelligence, holistic perspective, inclusion, empathy, intuition. All those skills that have been largely marginalized or dismissed as "soft" in the business world are really powerful for facilitating the emergence of collective intelligence. Such skills are not exclusively held by women, of course. But on average they are more developed in women, and women are generally more willing to use them.

When we think of leadership it is often masculine-infused, rewarding behaviors like decisiveness, goal-directedness, linearity, and performance-orientation. I don't think Rometty, Whitman or Burns could have attained this level of power without demonstrating these abilities two-fold. I'm sure they have proved they are man enough for the job.

The real question is, are they woman enough for the job? Will they take this opportunity to wield the power of those feminine skills, by demonstrating a more collaborative style of leadership? In a world begging for a different kind of leadership, will they depart from the lone ranger model of leadership that reveres those qualities of independence, individuality, and autonomy? Will these women transform the meaning of power by distributing power rather than holding onto power for themselves, by engaging people rather than dictating to them, and by seeking to bring the best out in people rather than focusing on themselves as center stage heroes?

If they do, Bella Abzug's prediction will be fulfilled, and a much needed new era of cooperation has an opportunity to be realized.