Have you been watching Dynasties on BBC? The first episode followed the plight of David, an alpha male chimpanzee, as he tried to maintain power within his tribe.
After one attempted coup, David sustained severe injuries, the likes of which might have killed a human. However, through extreme posturing and canvassing of support from other males, David reasserted control of his tribe and regained his position as alpha male.
Thank god that, among evolved humans, becoming the leader of a company or a country is more about possessing interpersonal and practical skills than it is about size and strength.
We’ve come a long way since our evolutionary ancestor diverged from the ancestor of the chimpanzee.
Or have we?
A much quoted study of chief executives in the Fortune 500 conducted during the 1980s found that 97 per cent of bosses were 5ft 8 (1.73m) or taller. This survey was conducted 40 years ago, but comparing the results of that survey with those found by Malcolm Gladwell (in his book Blink) appears to indicate that the situation has probably not changed all that much.
According to the National Centre for Health Statistics, in the US, a quarter of men (of working age) are 5ft 7 (1.70m) or shorter. This could potentially mean that, on the basis of height discrimination, the smallest quarter of men only have around a three per cent chance of becoming a chief executive.
But what of women? 90 per cent of women in the US are 5ft 7 or shorter. If we were to assume that the unrepresentative nature of chief executive height was purely caused by height discrimination, this would suggest that 90 per cent of women have only a three per cent chance of becoming a chief executive.
The existence of height discrimination among leaders might suggest that humans value similar qualities to those exhibited by our animal counterparts. Leaders who are physically powerful still command respect.
But is this preference for power also reflected in verbal behaviour? Feminist linguist Professor Jennifer Coates compared men and women’s conversational behaviour.
During observation, men often attempted to adopt the role of “teacher”, they strived to attract and maintain the attention of their audience, and were more confrontational. In contrast, women were keener to listen to the contribution of others, to try to ensure group members were included in conversation, and generally adopted a more collaborative approach to conversation.
Professor Robin Ely at Harvard Business school says that there appears to be a relationship between company success and the presence of women in senior positions, which could be because women introduce typically “feminine” qualities, such as showing empathy for employees, and enhancing cooperation. These qualities improve the working relationships within a company, with obvious benefit to morale and productivity.
In recent times, progress has been made in the UK with regards to female representation at company boardroom level – and long may this continue. But I would be very interested to know how many women who are becoming chief executives are much below 5ft 7.
If we were to find that height discrimination has continued as more women have been promoted, and that most female chief execs are around 5ft 7 or above, then I think this would be a sign that the underlying “masculine” culture has not changed.
Worse, it could reveal that height discrimination is greater among women than men. If women in leadership positions are approaching the average height of men, it could be a sign that women are being chosen on the basis of a male characteristic.
Is the underlying preference for “male” attributes vanishing? Or are we promoting women who possess qualities typical of men? My feeling is that if we begin to see shorter men and women selected for leadership positions, this might represent a subtle indicator that change is beginning to happen at a deeper level.