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The right way to put more women in boardrooms

Japan and Germany each announced goals last week to put more women in top company slots. Yet their approaches differ. And new research indicates gender qualities can't be stereotyped according to sexual differences. This suggests official bias based on sex could be misplaced.

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Before Merkel was forced to changed her view by Germany’s liberal parties and many within her own party, her greatest worry on behalf of women was that their high-level appointments under a quota system would diminish their reputation. “I would hate a person to ask me a question, are you a quota woman or are you a merit woman?” she once told NPR. Her view reflected a 2012 poll of 54 top woman executives in Britain that found 94 percent of them oppose gender quotas.

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The different paths for Germany and Japan represent a similar debate in the United States on whether advancing women in business requires a social shift in attitude or a top-down arm-twisting by government.

A new book titled “Lean In,” by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, advises women to change their  “internal impediments” – such as not boldly asking for a raise. Other authors, such as Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, prefer that government or companies make the workplace more woman-friendly. Polls in the US show about 58 percent of people think men and women are “basically different.”

Underlying this debate is a commonly held notion that women and men are so “hard-wired” as to require special  gender-specific treatment. Yet this type of thinking has been under attack by some scholars such as Cordelia Fine of the Melbourne Business School in Australia. They say gender stereotypes are as common as a plotline on the TV show “Mad Men.” This can lead to policies that peg men and women in ways that many would find inappropriate to their individuality.

In a 2012 article in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, American researchers Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis looked at 13 studies involving 13,301 individuals and concluded that “grouping into ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories indicates overlapping continuous distributions rather than natural kinds.” Gender differences, in other words, are a matter of degree. And yet society too often treats them as distinct and unchangeable.

Their article, titled “Men and Women Are From Earth,” says traits such as emotional stability, openness, and agreeableness can depend on a person’s experiences and are thus open to modification.

Such studies might argue for the softer approach in Japan, Britain, and the US in placing women in top company slots – not so much to help women but indirectly as a way of bringing more feminine qualities into business.

Adding more Venus to the Mars in the boardroom, in other words, would bring more companies down to Earth.

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