The future is 'female' talks to John Gerzema, one of the authors of "The Athena Doctrine" which suggests traits deemed feminine will be those most valued by business in the future.

Will businesses operate differently in the next decades and what could this mean for women? A best-selling US book says the most innovative companies are already using different principles, based on cooperation, collaboration and team work – qualities which are perceived as being intrinsically 'female'.

“The Athena Doctrine: how women [and the men who think like them] will rule the future” by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio argues that “femininity” [ie traits more generally associated with women in the workplace] ‘is the operating system of 21st century prosperity’.

The book sprang out of previous research they had done on the economic crisis in the US. As they presented that book’s findings around the world audiences drew their attention to the fact that most of the traits exhibited by successful entrepreneurs who had adapted to tougher economic conditions were those that are widely regarded as “feminine”.

The authors decided to look for signs that some set of traditionally 'feminine' values and traits might be on the rise among business leaders. One of their first interviews was with gender commentator Ann Danylkiw who said she objected to the traits being described as "feminine". They decided to investigate how the traits they had categorised as feminine and masculine were viewed by others.

They set up a survey of 64,000 people chosen to mirror the populations of the 13 countries that account for 65% of global gross domestic product. These include Brazil, China, India, the US and the UK.

They asked if people were optimistic about the future and about their levels of trust in large institutions and corporations. The survey showed people only trust one in four companies on average. Those surveyed were dissatisfied with the government and their economy, but also with the behaviour of men in general. Some 57% on average were dissatisfied with the conduct of men in their country, with 54% of men and 59% of millennials agreeing.

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Nearly two thirds of people around the world, including the majority of men, thought the world would be a better place if men thought more like women. Millennial men in highly masculine countries were more likely than women to agree with this.

‘Female’ traits

The authors also conducted two studies where they asked half of their survey subjects to classify 125 different traits as either masculine, feminine or neither.  They say there was strong consistency across countries about what were masculine or feminine traits and which were neither. They then showed the other half of their survey subjects to rate the importance  of the traits in the business world, but without attributing any gender to them.

They found, for instance, that people thought ‘feminine’ traits like the ability to empathise and connect, patience, collaboration and sharing credit were more important for effective leaders than attributes like aggression and control.

Some 78% of respondents thought ‘today’s times require we be more kind and empathetic’ and 65% said more female leadership in government would bring greater trust and fairness plus a decline in wars and scandal.

John Gerzema says: “People seem to want a different type of leader with a whole range of different skills from in the past.”

He thinks this desire for something new comes from a confluence of different developments – the rise of women in the workforce, millennial values, the economic crisis, concerns about climate change and technology, to cite just a few. “A lot of forces are gathering speed at the same time. People are frustrated with the way things are,” says Gerzema.

He adds that he was surprised that that frustration was clearly evident not just in the West but also in countries like Japan which suffered a major economic crisis in the 1990s and early noughties and “realised that compassion and understanding were the best response when times are tough”. Some 79% of Japanese men said they were frustrated with the conduct of men in their country.

Asked which countries most surprised him, he said Colombia and Kenya. “Technology is moving faster than the countries’ infrastructure,” he says. “These are countries where businesses were pushed to the brink and really needed to innovate. They could not keep repeating the same patterns.”


Following the surveys, Gerzema and D’Antonio travelled the world talking to innovative start-up companies which are based more on “feminine” than “masculine” traits. “They are not the mainstream,” says Gerzema, “but they do show certain commonalities around the world such as an underlying interest in values, empathy and trust. You could call these ‘female’ values, but they are more generally ethical values.”

The companies they studied have these values as core from the outset and see it as giving them a competitive edge. Gerzema thinks this will only continue since research shows the majority of millennials put shared values above a high pay cheque when looking for a job. “It’s an interesting trend that’s emerging,” he says, “and one which big corporations should be mindful about.”

Gerzema consults for large organisations to help them understand these kinds of emerging issues and says he is encouraged by the response. “The main message we are giving is that ‘feminine’ values belong to all of us and are the operating currency for the 21st century. These are not soft and squishy values. The leaders we spoke to are not soft or in soft situations,” he says, citing businesses dealing with the post-crisis situation in Iceland or an organisation that helps reintegrate rebel soldiers in Colombia. “They know that how they operate gives them a competitive advantage.”

He adds that having a more gender balanced workforce at all levels improves risk management and boosts creativity. It also reduces the dangers of group think and brings in different viewpoints.

Gerzema, who is a fellow at the all female Barnard College, has designed workshops for female leaders and says proceeds from the Athena Doctrine book will go to the UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign which gives American girls the opportunity to become global leaders and raise awareness and funds for United Nations programmes that help some of the world’s hardest-to-reach teenage girls. “It is important,” he says, “that young women find their voice as leaders.”

*The Athena Doctrine: How women [and the men who think like them] will rule the future” is published by Wiley.

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