A Gendered View of Decision Making

really interesting article appeared on Science Daily last week, making the assertion that women make better decisions than men. This position is based upon a study by two Canadian professors (Chris Bart and Gregory McQueen), recently published in the International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics. It’s an interesting position and an interesting perspective. The topic of gender differences has been in the news a great deal, with the fiftieth anniversary of the publishing of Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and the exposure associated with the recent publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’.

I don’t consciously bring a bias to this conversation. I believe that men and women should be treated equally, and have equal opportunity; in that context, I could be arguably considered a feminist. At the same time, I am white and male, and therefore arguments can be made that I subconsciously do have a bias, or at least that my gender will influence my perspective.

What the study suggests, however, is not the presence of equality: it is advantage. It suggests that the perspective of women in decision making is better than that of men. It’s an interesting assertion, and certainly one worth exploring and understanding more about.

The study was reported to have found that male directors are more likely to follow the rules, to adhere to regulations and to stick to the way things have always been done around here.

Female decision makers, by contrast, were reported to be less constrained by the rulesets and more willing to ‘rock the boat’. Specifically, it is suggested that they will take the interests of more stakeholders into account, and be more inclined to make decisions in a collaborative and consultative manner. Their objective is a ‘fair’ or ‘moral’ decision, and they will more often adopt a consensus-based approach to get there.

What I find really interesting about these observations is twofold: they describe different values in decision making and what constitutes an ‘effective’ decision, and they ascribe these differences to gender.

To tackle the first (and possibly safer) assertion, what the authors of the study essentially describe is two different decision making models: rules-based and values-based. Rules-based approaches are what are associated with ‘personal interest reasoning’ and ‘normative reasoning’ in the article, and largely emphasize what an individual wants, or what the rules say should be the outcome. As a decision making model, rules-based models are most effective in routine, familiar decision making environments where parameters can be defined. To be clear, many of these do exist in the boardroom; the expectation that any business case must have a payback period of one year, or an internal rate of return of at least 25%, are examples of rules that provide specific guidelines, and save time because they screen out any opportunity that doesn’t meet that threshold.

Values-based decision making models emphasize interests over rules. They highlight principles and values, and look at any specific opportunity through the lens of how the decision is influenced by values. This immediately raises the question of whose values are operative; while they should be the organization’s, in reality there will be subsets of groups and individual values that have an influence unless the values to be referenced are specifically defined and articulated. If that sounds like a lot of time and effort to do, it is; there is a lot of negotiation around principles and compromises and opportunities that take a great deal of time to work through. As a decision making model, it is most appropriate in a context of where there is a complex, uncertain and difficult decision that does not directly relate to previous situations; what the authors refer to as ‘complex moral reasoning’.

All of the above highlights two specific points: rules-based and values-based decision models both have their place, and they aren’t readily substituted for one another. Following the rules on a complex decision might feel safe but produce a very wrong outcome; engaging in values constantly might feel inclusive, but takes a great deal of time and does not necessarily produce similar outcomes in routine circumstances. Part of effective decision making is about asking what kind of decision is required, and consciously shifting to the relevant approach.

The gender question is potentially much more loaded in terms of implications. The assertion of the study authors is that men prefer rules-based decisions and women prefer values-based decisions. To reframe these perspectives slightly, rules-based approaches are ‘masculine’ and values-based approaches are ‘feminine’. While that might sound like a semantic shift, it’s actually a very important one. This is not a perspective of whether men do one thing and women do another thing. It is about recognizing that there are biases that individual people bring to the table that are viewed as being more masculine or feminine in nature.

The shift in the previous paragraph is an important one, in that the basis of masculine and feminine modes of thought are the essence of what, in personality theory, is referred to as ‘thinking’ vs. ‘feeling’ behaviour. These descriptors, from Carl Jung’s Theory of Psychological Types, define the rational function – the decision making approaches – that exist as inherent differences in individual people. Some people have more of a ‘thinking’ preference; they apply logic, they adhere to the rules, they respect tradition and past precedence. Other people have more of a ‘feeling’ preference; they apply emotion, they are considerate with people and values and the impacts that decisions will have; they employ greater levels of consultation and seek consensus.

Using ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ reframes the implications of the study quite significantly. The challenge of referring to gender modes as ‘masculine’ is that we then run the risk of assuming that what we mean is ‘men’; when we hear feminine, we infer ‘women’. In fact, men can embody a ‘feeling’ decision making preference, and many women employe a ‘thinking’ preference. Without question, our traditional view of Type-A, strong-willed, my-way-or-the-highway executive that characterizes ‘personal interest reasoning’ and will more emphasize the rules (especially when the rules are in their favour) is masculine in nature, but it would be reductive to say that only men behave in this way. At the same time, it would not be advantageous to presume that only women can engage in employing ‘feeling’ based decision making modes that would be more aligned with—and appropriate for—complex decision making scenarios.

What the study does do is raise some important questions as to how decisions are made around the boardroom table. It makes me wonder the degree to which values-based decision models are valued; in my experience, there is a much greater bias towards the clarity and certainty of rules-based (and therefore, ‘thinking’ or ‘masculine’) decision making models. It would seem to be much more appropriate, however, to emphasize the style of decision making and the practices required, rather than simplifying the analysis to a construct of gender. Yes, ‘feeling’ or ‘feminine’ decision making styles are more appropriate ways of approaching complex, uncertain and difficult situations. We need both men and women to embrace and recognize this.

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