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Female Killer Whales Can Teach Executive Boards a Lot About Leadership

Under a new law passed last week, a number of Germany's largest companies must award at least 30 percent of board seats to women by January of 2016. Germany has joined Norway, France, Spain, Iceland, Italy, and Belgium in quota systems. Another 3,500 companies must come up with a quota plan by next September, with binding targets, showing how they will add women to their management levels and boards.

The new legislation will be applied as vacancies occur. If companies are unable to fill the required proportion of supervisory board seats with women candidates, they will be legally obliged to leave the seat empty. 

There are pros and cons to such quotas. And certainly there are ways around them, so they don’t solve everything. There is the risk of assuming that filling top spots also resolves problems that exist at other, less lofty levels, creating a false sense of gender equality. But an increasing number of countries are seeing advantages, especially when nothing else is working.

In her discussion of quotas, Forbes business writer Shellie Karabell draws a link between the German quota decision and recent research on killer whales. Our fellow mammals are far more accepting of female leadership. In the Pacific coastal waters of British Columbia, researchers examined the value of extensive life beyond menopause experienced by female killer whales — a characteristic shared by their human counterparts. 

Mature female killer whales, the researchers learned, are more likely than adult males to be group leaders, especially during difficult years when salmon abundance is low. Far from being superfluous, these females know where to find the salmon. They are repositories of special wisdom acquired over the years, with enhanced social knowledge as well. If you want to eat, you follow them.

Apparently, there’s no panicked, silly “scrambling” among male killer whales over where to find enough experienced females, no “grooming” obstacle regarding claims that females haven’t been sufficiently mentored. No wringing of fins and flexing of hubris goes on about lowering the bar. They’re hungry. She knows where the salmon are. That’s critical. Case closed.

Researchers do not appear to have found female leader whales haunted by being “required” leaders. Maybe they even skipped the “token” period that supposedly made women insecure for decades. Somehow they lead undaunted despite smaller pectoral muscles and tail flukes.

Karabell notes, “Human females need laws to secure leadership roles for themselves that Mother Nature apparently has already designated.” The observant female killer whale accrues leadership advantages over time, as does the vigilant human female. One accedes naturally to leadership; the other often fights for every inch at higher levels of traditional organizations.

Whether you favor executive gender quotas or not, the frequently assumed difference deficit is disputed by research. The presence of women has improved boards. Besides, many errors occur when selecting men to high-level positions. There are no guarantees. If mistakes are made in bringing women onto boards, that would be no different than the track record for men.

We might take a lesson or two then from killer whale leadership — particularly regarding the nonsensicality of excuses for blocking women’s board membership. It’s not how much a leader looks like all the others that matters. In fact, that’s where the greater danger lies — ever learning from a different vantage point, fretting over “fit” when the true advantage is far from it.

Kathleen also blogs here.

Photo: Rawpixel/

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