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A study by two professors at the Rotman School of Management argues that women are held back by 'tight' cultures and can emerge more easily as leaders in 'loose' cultures. (Kutay Tanir/iStockphoto/Kutay Tanir/iStockphoto)
A study by two professors at the Rotman School of Management argues that women are held back by 'tight' cultures and can emerge more easily as leaders in 'loose' cultures. (Kutay Tanir/iStockphoto/Kutay Tanir/iStockphoto)

Culture and the final frontier for female leaders Add to ...

With hindsight, we may find that the 2016 U.S. presidential race began last week, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a politically electrifying point. “Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me,” she said at the Women in the World conference in New York. “But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.’’

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At a time when birth control has re-emerged as a political issue in the United States, Ms. Clinton’s comments were an inspiring rallying cry for worried American women. But what about the mystery she identified? Why, as the secretary of state asserted, do extremists – from the Taliban to conservative Christians – want to control women?

An intriguing new study by two professors at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto suggests a possible answer. (Disclosure: I am on the advisory board for the school’s dean.)

Soo Min Toh and Geoffrey Leonardelli didn’t set out to discover why extremists want to control women. Their question was more familiar: Why aren’t there more female leaders?

Their study argues that women are held back by “tight” cultures and can emerge more easily as leaders in “loose” cultures. Tight cultures have clear, rigid rules about how people should behave, and impose tough sanctions on those who don’t– provoking “a resistance to changing the traditional and widespread view that leadership is masculine.” Socially conformist, homogeneous societies such as Japan, Malaysia, Norway and Pakistan are tight cultures.

Loose cultures are more tolerant of deviation from the rules. Heterogeneous societies and countries in the midst of social and political transition, such as Australia, Israel, the Netherlands and Ukraine, are loose cultures. These are cultures where people are “more open to change, and this openness may become manifest in changing expectations and attitudes about the masculinity of leadership,” the study says.

Here is where Ms. Clinton’s mystery comes in. Tight cultures are not necessarily sexist ones (witness the inclusion of Norway), but extremist subcultures are certainly tight cultures, built on historical assumptions of male dominance. The perspective of Ms. Toh and Mr. Leonardelli helps to explain why these rigid ideologies are fixated on keeping women down.

But what about the places such as Norway, tight cultures where women do extremely well? The researchers’ answer is that where there has been a top-down decision to support female leaders, tight cultures are very good at executing that directive. These societies are effective at acting on the collective will: If the decision is made to elevate women, tight societies will do that.

“Although a culturally tight country, Norway ranks high in terms of gender egalitarianism,” the study notes. In Norway, egalitarianism is not a rebellion against prevailing cultural norms; it is what the society’s top-down consensus requires. When it comes to the business world, for example: “Norway has among the most ambitious equal opportunity legislation in the world that legally requires firms to reach a 40 per cent women board representation by 2017.’’

The study’s framework also helps to explain one peculiarity of women in the workplace. Tight societies that choose egalitarianism are good at pushing women into the corporate establishment. Loose societies that are open to change are good at empowering women more broadly, encouraging them to join the work force and to start their own small businesses.

But the one thing women around the world fail to do is create paradigm-shifting companies. None of the great technology startups – Google, Apple, Facebook – were founded by a woman. Nor were any of the leading hedge funds, the innovators in the world of money, established by a woman. Women are not only underrepresented in this space of transformative entrepreneurs, they are entirely absent.

At first, this gap seems to contradict the report’s analysis. After all, startups embody a profoundly loose culture – it doesn’t matter whether you are a misfit or an ultraconformist, so long as you have a brilliant idea and are able to implement it.

But the authors point out that leadership is not only about how others view you, but also about how you view yourself. Centuries of sexism, they argue, mean that female leaders sometimes cede leadership roles to men because the women, too, “believe that being male … is more leader-like.’’

Loose cultures can counteract those self-imposed stereotypes to some degree. But the final frontier for women, even in societies that allow them to lead established organizations, is to be ruthless and to take big risks – essential qualities in world-changing entrepreneurs.

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