Do We Really Need Gender Parity?

As a female voter and politically active citizen I do my best to participate in the democratic process.  Still, I find it frustrating that I have precious little opportunity to elect women to represent me. While I know that the male politicians I vote for do their best to represent me, I feel disappointed that they tend to surround themselves with male advisors to shape their policies.

This month, Justin Trudeau the Prime Minister of Canada appointed a cabinet with true gender parity, 15 men and 15 women.  This is a historic event that received an underwhelming mention in the press. To offer points of comparison, the Obama cabinet has 11 women and 15 men, while Bush’s cabinet had 25 percent women.  On average, women are outnumbered 2-to-1 by men as state-level cabinet appointees.

Trudeau’s choice to have a 50/50 gender mix is intended to reflect the make up of Canadian citizens to fairly represent all citizens in government decisions and policies.  I feel gratitude to Prime Minister Trudeau for taking the risk of making this bold and courageous move towards true gender parity in government. While I don’t know Trudeau’s thinking, this is the message I receive from his decision:

  • Canadian women are citizens he represents
  • Canadian women’s needs and opinions matter and women can better represent those needs than men
  • Women make worthy and wise advisors.

These messages feel so inspiring I may have to move to Canada.

While many applaud Trudeau’s decision others have argued that many men were more qualified to assume key positions that were given to women.  That may be true when it comes to technical expertise and or previous government experience.  That said, the criteria for being “qualified” is missing a key element: the ability to think, feel and act like a woman.  Trudeau, by appointing women to his cabinet is acknowledging that men and women have key differences in needs, opinions and values that only equal representation can accommodate.  While the women appointed may not be the most technically qualified Canadians to fill cabinet positions, surely by now, there are at least 15 Canadian women competent enough to be highly effective in these strategic positions.

While the intention behind the Trudeau cabinet makeup is mainly about representation there may be additional benefits now that the Cabinet has a higher level of gender diversity.  Both Catalyst and McKinsey have published studies that compare the financial performance of large organizations according to the gender diversity at senior levels, and both found that high returns on equity correlated with greater diversity. A recent study by the Gallup organization of 800 business units in two companies showed that business units with higher gender diversity also had higher average revenues than the business units with less gender diversity.

While it is clear that greater gender diversity leads to better business performance the cause is not clear. Our theory is that not only do mixed gender teams increase differing views, ideas and insights; they also help the whole team and each individual on the team raise their Versatility Factor.  A high Versatility Factor is achieved when an individual or team balances and blends masculine and feminine strengths to solve problems. Our research shows that both men and women prefer working on mixed gender teams, because they not only get better results, they also step out of stereotypical constraints that limit creativity.  An example of this shift was proven in a study of law firms that showed that both male and female associates are more likely to describe themselves as having traditional feminine strengths when more women were in the firm.

While women have been involved in politics and business for many years, it is only recent that a clear business case has been established for women in leadership.  Possibly, because it’s only been a short time that enough corporations have reached the critical mass of women in power for female voices to be heard and for the full impact of their presence to be felt.  Studies show that both women and men on corporate boards with only 1 or 2 women have poor performance however when at least 3 women are on the board performance improves notably.  Most boards are just starting to approach that minimal threshold.

Many women will be closely watching the Trudeau cabinet but hopefully many men will also.  It should be interesting to see which policies and key metrics of government effectiveness (e.g. higher GDP and a lower unemployment rate) are impacted.  What will be even more interesting; is to see if the cabinet focus shifts or expands.  Perhaps priorities and metrics such as pubic health, education and well-being will gain traction.  If so, it will be interesting to note if all key metrics rise or if one problem is just replaced with another.  If this experiment in balanced gender leadership succeeds, it will be a big win not only for women; but for all humankind.

Photo credit: Flickr/Justin Trudeau