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The Sexual “Cloud” in the Executive Suite (2015)

Manfred Kets de Vries

"Let's talk about sex in the boardroom"

Nobody talks about sex in the boardroom. However, the sexual dynamics between men and women are age eternal and hover above like a cloud, motivating individuals at an unconscious level. In this article I argue that people today are very much governed by the same sexual desires that drove our primitive ancestors. Given where we are on the timeline of our evolutionary history, we still have very much a Stone Age Mind in a Stone Age Body. Not only are we driven by what has been labeled as the “selfish gene” (Dawkins, 1976) – or competition to propagate and survive – most of the time we are not even aware of the extent to which our sexual desires influence our behavior and actions. It is hypothesized that the primal anxieties about the consequences of sexual desire is a contributing factor to the reluctance of men to allow women entry into the upper echelons. This “selfish gene effect” can be seen as an extra hurdle for women to overcome to reach senior executive ranks.

 

The article also points out that sexual discrimination is part of a more basic, social and developmental issue. To enable a more lasting change in attitudes, we need to go as far back as child rearing practices to re-examine how gender roles are established and reinforced. Slotting children into stereotypical male-female gender roles is not the answer. Only by making explicit unconscious gender biases and practices, can we begin to tackle the problem at its core and move towards a more androgynous orientation – which melds both feminine and masculine attributes within the same individual. Such an orientation will benefit both men and women alike. It is also pointed out that gender equality is not merely a woman’s issue. It is an issue that affects us all.

 

Gender inequality lowers the quality of life for both men and women. While women bear the largest and most direct costs of these inequalities, these costs cut broadly across society, ultimately hindering social and economic development. It is put forth that senior executives who are truly serious about fair process in organizations have the obligation to “manage” the sexual “cloud” more effectively. They need to realize that in spite of the selfish gene effect, sexism is also a social – and hence curable – disease. They need to engage in more systematic measures to counteract deeply embedded assumptions about gender and role expectations and to create more women-friendly organizations. Various interventions are suggested to bring more equality into the workplace.

INSEAD Knowledge, 2015

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