Want a smart team? Make sure it gets the recommended daily allowance of estrogen

A team without a woman is like a bicycle with… some fish? So it would seem, according to Grace Nasri, who writes in the HuffPo about the gender gap in tech from an interesting perspective. She got my attention with a 2011 HBR story profiling research by Anita Wooley and Thomas Malone showing that the one significant factor that demonstrably upped the measurable collective intelligence of a team was the presence of females on it.

The HBR research shows that the intelligence of individual contributors is not a predictor of a group’s intelligence. And that in fact a team dominated by a bossy, know-it-all individual contributor (yes, even one who actually does know it all), will be outperformed by a team consisting of lesser lights. But the most statistically significant predictor of higher team performance wasn’t the intelligence of the members of the team at all, but the presence of at least one woman on the team. Read the HBR interview with the study’s authors to learn how they designed the study, including how they measured individual and team “intelligence.”

Nasri goes on to talk about the tech industry’s gender gap, writing that “The latest Midas List, Forbes’ annual list of the 100 top venture capitalists, for example, includes just two women,” and that “only 8 percent of new startups backed by venture capital included at least one female founder.” It’s not clear what is cause and what is correlation in these numbers–I don’t believe male VCs are overtly biased against women founders, and I think that cultural factors other than bias can account for some of the disparity. For example, I am pretty sure there are more extroverts than introverts on those lists, too, which can also be explained by our unconscious preferences for certain presentation styles–”male” styles and “extrovert” styles of communication tend to be received more favorably on first impression.

As a person who is very concerned with language, I also wonder if our use of “team” terminology, deriving as it does from competitive sports, leads us to unconsciously favor masculine, extroverted team members and the funding of teams that resemble the 49ers more than those that resemble sewing bees. Gender manifests itself in subtle ways that go far beyond sex, into culture, communication style and unconscious preferences. Our collective favoring of masculine styles of team participation is something that is more about norms than it is about biases, for example.

In 2004, when I was editor of a newspaper, I wrote an article for Inc. Magazine describing how I used Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson, rather than the ever-popular The Art of War as my management bible. Funnily enough, on re-reading the story, I find my “feminine” approach to management sounds pretty agile. I think the advice I gave then of looking to the laundry room as often as you look to the war room for management models holds very true today, and supports the HBR study authors’ conclusion that what made a difference in team success was including a diversity of thinking styles. What do you think?

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