The Dalai Lama proclaimed at the Vancouver Peace Summit a few years back that "the Western woman will save the world."
Of course, he might have been a little heady over the company he was keeping there– Nobel peace laureates Mairead Maguire, Jody Williams and Betty Williams, Mary Robinson, the beloved Irish president and tireless human rights activist, Susan Davis, whose humanitarian work has impacted the lives of millions in Haiti, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and several African countries, and Abigail Disney, whose widely praised film "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" tells the story of a group of determined Liberian women who ousted dictator Charles Taylor and installed Africa’s first female president.
The statistics were also on the side of the western woman. The number of women-owned businesses in the US (7.8 million businesses) had climbed 20% from 2002 to 2007. In 2008, women, constituting more than 51% of the US population, accounted for about 47% of the American labor force, with women generating more than $1.9 trillion in sales in 2008, according to the National Women’s Business Council Center for Women’s Business Research. The Vancouver Peace Summit took place the following year.
Then between 1997 and 2011, the number of women-owned businesses in the US increased by 50%, significantly outpacing the overall increase in all new businesses, according to a study by American Express Open.
So is that how the western woman is saving the world?
The Dalai Lama has noted that he believes women are generally more compassionate (he says he inherited his strong sense of compassion from his mother) and would like to see more female ministers of defense, as Spain had from 2008-2011 (one that gave birth during that time, to boot). According to him, if wars are a fact of life, then it would be better if women were in charge, since they are more likely to empathize with all parties to a conflict.
We are often asked if women have higher emotional intelligence than men. "Women’s intuition" is a common shortcut for explaining how a particular woman was able to read and deal well with a sticky situation. Which can feel to a woman like half-a-compliment–is it simply mothering/social instincts that she is exercising, none of which are very highly valued in the business world, or is this a real business skill?
Turns out it’s a real business skill. While not dramatically so, women on average do score higher in certain attributes of emotional intelligence than men, like empathy. But then the average for men in other areas of emotional intelligence somewhat exceeds that of women. The difference can be simplified by saying that women are more likely to "feel your pain" while men are more likely to manage their own or others’ distressing emotions better– the former fosters stronger relationships, while the latter keeps matters moving forward. These are not likely to be the differences in any individual comparisons, but reflect the overall bell curve for each gender.
As the studies we cited in "Women Leaders and What Sabotages Them" indicate, when you look at managers’ attributes, some of these general gender differences start to look significantly more important–women managers show twice the level of self-awareness and empathy compared to male managers, and are significantly more effective in influencing others and resolving conflicts. These differences in managers generally seem to go away, though, when you reach the upper echelons of leadership–when even alpha male chimp troupe leaders are the ones showing the highest level of empathy.
So the answer to which gender has the higher emotional intelligence is that women have a slight natural edge but it is only those in both genders who exhibit a range of EI skills that are likely to make it to the top. Fortunately, these skills can be learned.
On the broader world stage, the Dalai Lama is surely on to something–empathy and compassion will no doubt be a better starting place for effectively building local and national alliances and resolving conflicts of every nature in a fast-changing world.
Now’s the time for women to shine.