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Women’s leadership and 'the rule of three'

Tuesday, May 28, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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ann perschel picBy Dr. Anne Perschel

In my first year of graduate school, I observed a phenomenon that ultimately became known as "The Rule of 3.”

To understand the rule and how it operates, I invite you to step back in time with me. We’re seated next to each other in a graduate school classroom. The professor is leading a discussion on race as a factor in medical/psychiatric diagnoses. Lots of white students participate in the conversation. There are two black students in the class. They remain silent.

I’m puzzled and disappointed. We lost the opportunity to hear a non-white perspective on a racial issue. I’m curious about why this happened, so I seek out the professor. She references social science research. "Until three members of the non-dominant group are present, they typically will not speak up, and if they do, they will often not be heard.”

As a leadership and business psychologist, my work sometimes focuses on bringing talented women and women’s talents to the leadership table. When corporates ask what metrics to set for women’s initiatives, I tell them about The Rule of 3.

Their visual response is often that snap-to-attention look on someone’s face when they become instantly aware of something that’s been happening, yet gone unnoticed, for a long time. They suddenly see the lack of attention to the voice of the lone woman in the room. You can almost see them watching the not-so-instant replays in their mind’s eye.

"Include three women on the leadership team,” I advise.

Three is a magic number

Equivalent ratios are referenced by other experts and thought provokers in the field of women’s leadership, including Linda Tarr Whalen and David Gergen, (staff adviser to four presidents and senior political analyst at CNN) in his introduction to Enlightened Power: Transforming the Practice of Leadership.

"Three” changes the conversation and the culture. Why change the culture? The 2008 economic debacle is a good reason, for starters. Had there been a Lehman sister, better yet, three sisters, the voice of caution and reason may have prevented the economic crisis, the one from which the world has yet to recover. We need a culture in which many views, not just the prevailing view of the dominant group, is heard and valued.

Women collaborate.They help people play well together. Women are concerned with ethics and social good. Women use their power and resources to build stronger families and communities. The business world needs our voices at the table, and those currently in power need to listen.

No matter how you position two points, they always form a straight line. They either align or oppose. Three breaks the tie and moves things forward. Three allows us to see more than two sides of an issue. Three points to a third way. It is the third eye seeing into another world. Three creates stability. We announce first, second and third place winners ― gold, silver, bronze. Third time’s a charm.

Business leaders say diversity sparks innovation and enables their company to appeal to a diverse customer base. But have we taken advantage of these benefits or just created window dressing?

To test and reap the true benefits of diversity, we must aim for inclusion of the non-dominant groups, the ones who did not set the rules or determine the prevailing cultural norms. In the business world, this means women, among others, because we did not set the rules, but we can be a force in changing them.

One woman, unless she is bold and unafraid, is not likely to speak up, and if she does she is not likely to be heard. Two don’t want to be seen as always agreeing with each other, or representing The Group. "Let’s ask Jane what women think.” But Jane wants to be valued for her individual contributions, not as a representative of All Women, who don’t think the same, anyhow. So, there you have it.

Dr. Anne Perschel is a leadership psychologist with 
Germane Consulting and co-founder and chief inspiration officer at 3Plus International, a career lab for high achieving and high potential women.

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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