Guest Post by Sonya Sammut

19 April 2021

As the mother of two boys and one dog, and the woman who fights chaos to extract order in the house, I am privileged to serve as the minister of home affairs. This private joke, which originated years ago when one of our Mediterranean project partners, a Moroccan, answered a call from his own minister aka his wife, is a source of amusement and a proud recognition of the fact that leaders come with different propositions.  

Before exploring the relationship between women and leadership, and considering whether sex differences play a part, it pays to understand what leadership truly is. I like to think of a leader as the person who works to solve the problems of the group. That is why, irrespective of whether they are leading a dominance or a production hierarchy, leaders inspire and bring together people who are needed to achieve organisational goals. It is also why an exemplary leader is driven by purpose, and has the kind of superpower the whole universe needs – the ability to support another person’s growth.

If we want to understand whether women make good leaders, we should start by asking the right questions. It is important, for instance, that we agree on which are those problems that we need to solve through our political and business hierarchies – for example child obesity, unemployment, poor performance in education, an unhealthy environment, slow economic growth, criminality, barriers to technological and cultural innovation, etc. – so we can determine who is fit for what. Next, we can speak about the different routes to becoming a leader – dominance, involving force; prestige, evoking admiration; and competence, a unitary model that breaks down these distinctions – and dig deeper into understanding whether males and females adopt different strategies to get to the top and to stay there.

This is why before we rush to any conclusion on whether women are competent enough to get leadership jobs done, we need to understand what drives their purpose, what are the tactics they prefer to use, and whether differences in personality that are rooted in our biological sex determine leadership styles and performances. Only then can we start to match the talents of the lady with the hardships of the job.

In the words of anthropologist John Tooby and his wife and psychologist Leda Cosmides, who together helped pioneer the field of evolutionary psychology, social engineering without a firm scientific understanding of sex differences is like a surgeon operating with a blindfold. It is the idea that when we open our eyes to the science of human nature, we get a more accurate view of the human condition, and the necessary solutions, such as for example, remaining competitive in a global market. We cannot assign people these huge responsibilities without knowing whether they have the vision and the ability to serve us well, without knowing, for example, how personality traits guide leadership strategies; how parental investment conditions their behaviour at work; how emotions work as marvellous programmes for fitness, regulating perception, attention, motivational priorities, communication, and so on; and how altruism and cooperative alliances have evolved as adaptations for dealing with the problems of group living.

That is precisely why, at 21 Academy, we design learning around the needs of the individual, and why, in our upcoming training course, ‘The Biology of People in Enterprise’, we blend evolutionary psychology as the science that illuminates our understanding of human nature, with a deep knowledge of entrepreneurship, to learn how some of the biological universals that shape human behaviour can serve as unique solutions, starting at the workplace, and taken beyond.