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Workplace Culture

Women in Tech Series, Part II: What Baboons Can Teach Us About Leading with Feminine Energy


Yes, you read that title correctly.

And yes, my mind was equally blown when Ankita Deshpande, Head of Digital Health and Experience at Alexion Pharmaceuticals, opened the discussion of “Leading with Feminine Energy on that very topic.

The story begins with Stanford University primatologist Robert Sapolsky observing a group of baboons (referred to as Forest Troop) from 1970-1986 when an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis killed the most aggressive males.  With the new 2-to-1 female-to-male ratio, Sapolsky gave up his original study and abandoned Forest Troop for the next ten years.

Okay, hopefully I still have your attention after that very brief background because it’s what happened next when Sapolsky returned after those ten years that’s really the important part here.

You see, violence is a disturbingly normal part of everyday baboon life.  Alpha males fight over food, females, the best napping spot, or just because they feel like it. Removing those alpha males from the equation is a massive cultural shift resulting in major repercussions and a power vacuum.

How did the remaining female baboons react?

They adapted. The remaining females completely reshaped the troop’s culture in order to survive. And they didn’t just survive, they thrived.

Yes, it’s true that Forest Troop kept the same dominance hierarchy and yes it’s also true that the alphas continued to fight over those coveted top spots. More importantly though is what we can learn from the lasting legacy of this “feminine” leadership energy.

When Sapolsky revisited Forest Troop a decade later, he was shocked to see reduced aggression, increased friendly behavior, and significantly decreased stress levels for all members, especially lower-ranking baboons who are often bullied by more aggressive alphas.

On its own, this cultural shift might not be all that surprising. What does make it mind-blowing is the fact that in the ten years in between Sapolsky’s visits, Forest Troop continued to embrace this new dynamic. Long after the original troop members passed and despite countless male baboons entering and leaving the troop once they reached puberty, this new social tradition withstood the test of time and outside influence.

Numbers don’t lie. According to a 2017 study by the Harvard Business Review, women outrank men in 17 out of 19 key leadership capabilities. There is also a treasure trove of data spanning decades of research that reinforces this. So why do women only make up 10% of CEOS at Fortune 500 companies, 28% of C-suite positions, 30% of Board Members, 25% of the US Senate, and 28% of the US House despite making up more than half of the US workforce?

What does all of this have to do with baboons?

“Social behavior observed in nature may be a product of culture, and even the fiercest primates do not forever need to stay this way.”

The above quote is taken from Dutch primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal’s article, Peace Lessons from an Unlikely Source, and perfectly sums up the lessons we can learn from Forest Troop. The gender pay gap, the glass ceiling, the corporate good ol’ boys’ club—the list goes on and on—are ultimately rooted in cultural biases. These greater cultural biases in turn influence personal biases in a vicious cycle that inevitably perpetuates disparity through generation after generation.

Yet despite the colossally unfair odds tilting away from our favor, women have made huge gains in the past several decades.  It may be incremental and may feel slow at times, but we are still making progress. Reading the statistics from a few paragraphs back, it makes our outlook feel pretty bleak right?

Now reframe those statistics from the lens of a hundred years ago when women had just gotten the right to vote, or just 60 years ago when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally gave black women across America the same right. Fast forward to the 2020 election when Kamala Harris, a woman of color, became the very first woman in the White House.

Forest Troop may have had to change for the sake of survival, but we can look to the lasting legacy of those first trailblazing female baboons as a symbol of hope just as we look to our own trailblazing women who made those first critical strides for change.