When female hyenas sniff each other’s anogenital regions – a risky business for animals with such lethal jaws – it’s analogous to a hug, explains Smith. After confirming trustworthy alliances, females join forces in another potentially risky behaviour: an attack. But hyena females lead not only in battle, but in defusing conflict within clans too.
Wild tips for women
So while greeting your colleagues in a similar way to hyenas and bonobos may be off the cards, sussing out allegiances could be absolutely vital. One take-home message that can be drawn from analysing female leadership in mammals is the crucial importance of coalitions: who you’re friends with in your social networks, and the expertise that comes with age and experience.
Female leadership, the animal world suggests, is more likely to emerge when females form cooperative units. Smith cites the #MeToo movement, as a parallel human example, where “anyone can get involved, and it doesn’t matter how much brute force you have,” says Smith. These virtual coalitions of women forming “are really influencing societal outcomes, so that is leadership, and that directly speaks to what we see in bonobos, hyenas, and these groups that join forces,” she says.
But is it valid to make this leap from furry animals to working women? The idea is contentious, acknowledge Smith and colleagues. It’s problematic because “the level of complexity, and the differences in the social systems, is so great,” says Christos Ioannou at the University of Bristol. “It’s such a big jump, that I think it’s very difficult to make those comparisons,” says Ioannou, who studies collective behaviour and leadership.
Smith’s team argue that some forms of female leadership have been entirely overlooked. Leadership research often focuses on large, complex hierarchies within a business, government or military. But the way some forms of female leadership work, within families and small groups for instance, is more subtle but nevertheless provides valuable insight.
Even in primates with male-biased leadership, female leadership can go unnoticed. Julie Teichroeb, University of Toronto primate behavioural ecologist, studies vervet monkeys. Because females of this species lead from the middle or rear of a group – think middle management – early studies mistakenly determined that decision-making was done by large males at the front, she explains.
Of course, our biological legacy is only one aspect of why females are underrepresented in leadership. The other aspect is culture. People are skilled in cultural innovations that can change our own environment, therefore Smith’s team argue we could shape a future with more leadership opportunities for women.
The study provides more interesting ideas than hard evidence, but the authors plan more rigorous quantitative analyses in the future. Nevertheless, these eight species with strong female leadership suggest tantalising areas for further study.
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