As Sanna Marin becomes Finland's new prime minister with a cabinet dominated by women, we look at the neuroscience behind the female leadership advantage.
Leadershipis changing. In a world where we need to think obsessively about the biggest of pictures, work together to achieve sustainable success, and define our own lives in relation to getting the job done, people skills are at a premium.
Greater levels of oxytocin lead to collaboration, which leads to being able to build strong powerful networks. If we need our governments and our leadership to represent us, the people, we could take a few chapters out of Finland’s trendsetting book.
Sanna Marin is Finland’s new Social Democrat prime minister, and is leading a coalition dominated by women.
A new dawn for leadership
Finland has broken the mould with a cabinet of 12 women and seven men, under new prime minister Sanna Marin.
It’s no surprise that this female-led government should emerge from Finland. It’s a country that has excelled in global rankings for gender equality for over 30 years, alongside its Scandinavian neighbours.
At 34 years old, Ms Marin is also the world’s youngest leader, following in the footsteps of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. Three of her cabinet are also under 35. Li Andersson, 32, is minister of education and head of the Left Alliance; Maria Ohisalo, 34, is minister of the interior and head of the Green League; and 32-year-old Katri Kulmuni is minister of finance and leader of the Centre Party.
It’s a new dawn for leadership, and even the men who have historically dominated politics in Finland have welcomed the arrival of women at the top.
Kim Campbell, Canada’s only ever female prime minister, said: “What we have to understand is that men are not the default category. Women are not a departure from what is normal. What we’re seeing in Finland is normal - having young women who see clearly what this change is going to mean for them.”
The female advantage
What if the buzz and excitement around Finland’s new leadership isn’t just about celebrating gender equality? What if women actually have a leadership advantage over men?
It was exactly this question that Envisia Learning’s Ken Nowack and Andrew Munro explored in a recent article. They focused on understanding the emotional and social competence (ESC) differences in men and women to ascertain whether women have a leadership advantage over their male counterparts.
One of the key concepts in ESC is the ability to demonstrate empathy and interpersonal skills to manage effective relationships with others. Research has shown that a culture lacking in empathy and compassion results in 30% less creativity, reduces work quality by 38%, and also leads to lower team morale. Another study found empathy to be one of the most important drivers of overall performance.
The evidence does indeed seem to support biological differences in ESC for women compared to men. In Nowack and Munro’s own research, they found women were higher on an overall measure of ESC, as well as communication skills and relationship management competencies. Further evidence from functional magnetic imagery (fMRI) scans of the brain also suggests women demonstrate higher levels of empathy compared to men.
The oxytocin benefit
The next question Nowack and Munro asked was, what might give women this unfair advantage in demonstrating greater empathy and interpersonal competence?
The answer might lie with oxytocin, a hormone that’s particularly important for women. Women under stress exhibit a release of oxytocin, which is a key hormone involved in female reproduction, and also supports what social psychologist Shelly Taylor calls ‘tend and befriend’ behaviours.
One of the most well-known researchers into oxytocin is Paul Zak, who over the last twenty years has shown that oxytocin is indeed the biological basis for psychological safety, empathy and interpersonal trust.
In one experiment using a money-sharing game, Zak found that a spray of oxytocin up the nose could make people more empathetic and more trusting. And as he explains in the TED talk below, you don’t need nasal spray - you can stoke oxytocin in others simply by being empathetic and trusting towards them.
As women have higher levels of oxytocin than men, it could be providing them with a distinct leadership advantage.
As Nowack and Munro concluded, “Indeed, many of the gender differences found in ESC (e.g. empathy, involvement oriented leadership styles) might be largely attributed to the prosocial hormone oxytocin which selectively provides women with a slight evolutionary advantage over men.”
Creating collaborative environments
So, what happens when you bring together a group of female leaders, like those dominating the Finnish government?
That’s a lot of oxytocin being shared around, which helps to create an environment of empathy, trust and collaboration.
Research shows that when leaders and employees feel and express empathy, compassion and trust towards each other, it results in significantly higher performance, engagement and retention of talent.
In Finland, there’s a great deal of excitement about the new dawn of leadership led by Marin and her female-dominant team.
In the corporate world, we’re seeing more women in senior executive positions, and it appears to be contributing immensely to the success of most organisations. Stats about gender equality boosting the bottom line speak for themselves, and oxytocin may well be playing a part in it.