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Men and women differ physically and mentally. Whether these differences matter or even are visible depends entirely upon circumstances. For example, some sports require gender segregation at the high levels (football; swimming); others do not (bridge, horse riding) according to whether the faculties aroused by the sport confer a gendered competitive advantage (almost always men over women). Yet, many situations, including many work roles, are gender neutral, and even when they do suit the capabilities of one sex over the other, you can see many crossovers: women doing “men’s” work (e.g. on building sites in India), and men doing women’s work (e.g. nursing in hospitals). This is because a) men and women differ in degree rather than categorically in their attributes, and b) because we are highly adaptable, and structural and cultural norms and incentives control behavior. Thus one might expect, free from such pressures, men and women might exhibit different preferences. When free to organize how they wish, sex-typed preferences may reveal themselves in what evolutionists call “niche construction”: agentically created social arrangement that are conducive to their capabilities and preferences.

This can be seen in the pre-teen school yard, where boys and girls typically selfsegregate to a high degree and play types of games that reflect evolved sex-typed stable strategies. Boys are often preoccupied with action games where they can test, compare and enhance their competitive advantage in physical and imaginative games. Girls are often more absorbed with complex routines that shape and reshape cooperative alliances, and group inclusion and exclusion. Conversely, it is also known that social structures shape relationships. Studies with monkey colonies find that central resource provisioning promotes competitive intermember relations, while dispersed supply fosters a more cooperative order. An experiment with student subjects successfully replicated this relationship.

The classic pyramidal hierarchy, so beloved by men, is increasingly unfit for purpose.

Taking approximations of these two models for organizing – a) the flat, decentralized, teambased model (the operating model of huntergatherer groups), vs. b) the linear, status and authority based system (the agrarian/industrial dominance hierarchy), a Darwinian view of sex differences leads us to expect gender differences in preferences for these forms. This has been strongly confirmed by my own research. Women strongly prefer type a) and men type b) as destinations for starting a career, leading, and preferences for a same sex leader in each. Organizational designs are thus highly gendered. In lay terms, linear hierarchies allow men to play the games they like best – league table status-aspiring tournaments; while flat structures, strongly preferred by women, give more scope for the logic of inclusion and exclusion; replicating what is visible in many a junior school gender playground: a voluntary segregation where the boys mostly engage in win-lose games while the girls form elaborate membership circles.

But in the digital age the world of work is changing, and the classic pyramidal hierarchy, so beloved by men, is increasingly unfit for purpose. Many newer companies much more resemble hunter-gatherer social structures in their fluid and pragmatic functionality. But what if men won’t let go of male dominance hierarchy because they like it, especially its senior caretakers, people who have most benefitted from its payoffs? This has far-reaching implications, not least for the so-called glass ceiling, which persists largely because many women feel alienated by the model. They don’t want to play the tournament game in dominance hierarchies because they don’t like it and don’t play it with such practiced ease as the men who outnumber them.

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Published On: April 4, 2018

Nigel Nicholson

Nigel Nicholson

Nigel Nicholson is a senior Professor at London Business School, where he has wide-ranging involvements in research, executive education and business. He writes, teaches, speaks and advises on leadership, family business, biography and legacy, executive development, management in finance, and interpersonal skills.

One Comment

  • O. Hamilton says:

    Your point seems less than clear. If your premise is correct that the more ‘male’ type of organizations are truly becoming unfit for purpose these days, then they will simply fail in the marketplace no matter who ‘won’t let go’ of them, no? Anybody is free to start up more ‘female’ types of organizations that are presumably increasingly more fit to the purpose as you imagine it and so will come to dominate the organizational marketplace, if that assessment is correct. It would seem that those would be the ‘far reaching implications’ of your hypothesis… basically we would be in a situation like today but reversed? Maybe am just not grasping your point? And your ‘operating model’ of the hunter-gatherer approach to organization seems to elide the fact that hunter-gatherer societies normally have a ‘gendered’ division of labor that is far more extreme than we see in the modern workplace… so is it your assumption that this aspect can be entirely excised and ignored without any impact on the overall operational functionality of the model? Curious.

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