In Front of Every Man is a Great Woman, Leading the Way. Yeah, Right.

Behind every man is a great woman. This statement, which brings to mind a 1950s housewife taking care of her hardworking husband, seems outdated today. But there's still lots of truth to the idea, and men in top positions often credit their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters for their more generous behavior, as Adam Grant writes in the New York Times. And this might not be all of a good thing.

We recognize the direct advantages that women as leaders bring to the table, which often include diverse perspectives, collaborative styles, dedication to mentoring and keen understanding of female employees and customers. But we’ve largely overlooked the beneficial effects that women have on the men around them. Is it possible that when women join top management teams, they encourage male colleagues to treat employees more generously and to share knowledge more freely? Increases in motivation, cooperation, and innovation in companies may be fueled not only by the direct actions of female leaders, but also by their influence on male leaders.

And it's not just female co-workers. Family members are an important influence for many men at the top. Politicians with daughters also tend to vote more liberally, especially when it comes to reproductive issues. We've also seen that C-suite men tend to promote more women to top positions once they have daughters.

Daughters apparently soften fathers and evoke more caretaking tendencies. The speculation is that as we brush our daughters’ hair and take them to dance classes, we become gentler, more empathetic and more other-oriented.

Sisters also help boost their brothers' generosity. In a study from the Free University in Amsterdam, researchers presented over 600 respondents with the following options: you get $25 and your partner gets $10, or you get $20 and your partner gets $30. The second option, where $50 are given as opposed to $35, means more money overall, but less for the respondent. Respondents with siblings had a higher preference for the second, less selfish option, even more so when the siblings were female.

It might also be that boys feel the impulse — by nature and nurture — to protect their sisters. Indeed, Professor Eagly finds that men are significantly more likely to help women than to help men.

Seems we're still living in a dog-eat-dog world where people of the same gender, perhaps perceived as too similar to ourselves, are our competition. I wonder what we would find if we were to reverse this situation. Are women more likely to help men than to help women?

Generous men chalk up women's influence to their nurturing approach. Bill Gates, the philanthropic billionaire, attributes his charitable work to his wife Melinda and his mother Mary, who “never stopped pressing me to do more for others."

Men, apparently, are way crazier and unpredictable than women. "Men are responsible for the lion’s share of the worst acts of aggression and selfishness, but they also engage in some of the most extreme acts of helping and generosity," writes Grant. Men tend to keep it all to themselves or to give it all away. Women are actually the most rational ones in this respect, preferring to share evenly most of the time.

Grant focuses on men's grand gestures, such as Gates' large monetary donations. But men are still learning to integrate emphatic and selfless behavior into their everyday lives, a nurturing attitude that is still, as it has long been, associated primarily with women. 

It’s often said that behind every great man stands a great woman. In light of the profound influence that women can have on men’s generosity, it might be more accurate to say that in front of every great man walks a great woman. If we’re wise, we’ll follow her lead.

With such a small number of female leaders, I wonder whether women still spend too much time trying to nudge others in the right direction rather than focus on what they need to achieve for themselves. Don't get me wrong, it's absolutely lovely that women encourage the men around them to be less selfish — it just seems like the flip-side might be that it's time for women to learn to be a little less selfless. I've seen my own mom encourage my dad and her kids so well that she hardly had enough time and energy left to focus on what she wanted and how she could improve. 

It's great that women have it so together that they still have time to teach the men around them how to behave, but saddening that Grant doesn't include any mention of what men can teach women in top positions. But Grant glosses over women's experience in more than this aspect. In light of recent research showing that the New York Times overwhelmingly quotes men, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Grant doesn't give us any insight into how the women who nurture and encourage feel about all this. In fact, only one woman, Melinda Gates, is cited in the whole (pretty long) article. And she's only cited because she invited wives along to a dinner her husband and Warren Buffet organized to talk about philanthropy. Sadly, this still smacks just a little too much of caring 1950s housewives.

Image: Logan Campbell on Flickr

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