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Rethinking Materialism from a Feminine Leadership Perspective

Highlights from a webinar with Roya Akhavan, part of the Wilmette ebbf partnership of events, written by Sara DeHoff.

Dr. Roya Akhavan serves as Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the Department of Mass Communications, St. Cloud State University and is the author of Peace for Our Planet: A New Approach. Drawing on her extensive research and experience in marketing and mass communications, Dr. Akhavan offers a global perspective on both materialism and leadership. In this webinar, she first examines the difference between materialism and material prosperity. Then she explores the leadership qualities needed to move society beyond materialism toward material prosperity.

Dr. Akhavan started off the webinar observing how the current COVID-19 pandemic is both exposing the shortcomings of our current economic system and giving us an opportunity to rethink our approach.

Materialism vs. Material Prosperity

One of the flaws of the current system is the persistent extremes of wealth and poverty, fueled by a greed-driven materialism. On the individual level, materialism is a mindset that focuses on amassing wealth to satisfy personal desires. Materialism goes beyond the legitimate human need for material well-being and instead pursues an insatiable appetite for material goods as the path to happiness. It is based on the assumption that human beings are atomized and disconnected, able to create meaningful lives on their own. On the system level, materialism manifests in the prevailing business culture, grounded in values that are greed driven and uncaring.

To address the disparities caused by materialism, we will need to lead and educate our way out of the materialistic mindset toward a mindset that aims at “material prosperity”. This new paradigm is founded on ideas that promote well-being for all:

  • Human happiness is not based on accumulating things, but rather on making a positive social impact while pursuing one’s own personal growth.
  • Human beings are not atomized, but interconnected; part of one organic whole.
  • Rather than the self-centered pursuit of goods, material prosperity is the pursuit of shared prosperity within a system that provides sufficient resources for all human beings to fulfill their potential.
  • Instead of competition and “getting ahead”; the core values of the material prosperity paradigm are justice, compassion, caring and collaboration to produce win-win outcomes.

It’s important to note that wealth itself is not seen as undesirable in the material prosperity paradigm. What needs to be examined is how wealth is earned, used and distributed.

Leadership for a New Paradigm

Since the 1990’s, studies of business management practices have emphasized the need to move away from old-style management “keyed to a money standard” toward leadership that is more caring and human-centered. This represents a shift from leadership characteristics traditionally associated with the masculine aspect of the human species to those traditionally associated with the feminine:

  • From influence through the exercise of power/position to influence through persuasion.
  • From competition to cooperation.
  • From individualism to collectivism.
  • From exclusion (divide & conquer) to inclusion (power-sharing, sense of family).
  • From toughness to moral courage.

This does not mean that women are better leaders than men. Rather, leadership behaviors that embody these more caring attributes lead to better organizational performance and greater employee satisfaction. These behaviors can be successfully adopted by both men and women.

On the international stage, we see the rise of women political figures who embody these feminine leadership characteristics. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardren, is successfully institutionalizing the idea of “citizen well-being” in place of the drive to increase GDP as the national economic strategy. We are also seeing male leaders who are more open to leading with empathy and care, such as Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada. The performance of these leaders is becoming even more clear in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The corporate arena has lagged behind, despite clear evidence that this style of leadership is effective in achieving long term and sustained productivity growth. The reason for this is the persisting dominance of hierarchical “male” characteristics in corporate habits and models.

So how do we build a more just and equitable system? That is the discussion for today. But first, it’s important to emphasize the importance of the role of men in promoting compassionate and caring leadership models. The old patriarchal mindset tends to relegate any discussion of gender equality to a separate realm as a “women’s issue.” But compassionate leadership is as much a men’s issue as a women’s issue. To achieve material prosperity, we need to adopt inclusive frameworks that emphasize the oneness of humanity in all our discourses.

Q&A Discussion

Do you believe that individual materialism precedes or stems from the more global materialism?

The individual and the system are mutually interdependent. If we want change, we have to think about both. As individuals, we can be the starting point. If we see ourselves as spiritual beings, we see we can have a great sphere of influence. Our actions can have great repercussions in the system. We live in a materialistic society, but we are self-reflective spiritual beings and we can make the decision not to let materialism shape us. Rather, we can call on our agency to change the system.

Modern research concluded that corporations lacking females in leadership roles have reduced profitability; can feminine leadership in business make capitalism a more viable institution from a range of societal perspectives?

Both scholarly and industry research have shown that companies that have women in leadership roles have higher levels of employee satisfaction and profitability/productivity. This research, furthermore, has identified the fact that employees do notice and reward caring and compassionate leadership (which is a behavior more often applied by women leaders).

So, how does this bode for capitalism as an economic system?

As you know, capitalism has evolved throughout the centuries and can take many different forms. If defined simply as a system based on the “profit motive,”(as opposed to “greed”), it can become viable under certain circumstances, among which I can list the following:

1- Profit-sharing.
2- Employee-friendly practices.
3- Democratic and caring leadership that allows each employee’s talents and capacities to flourish.
4- Environmental sustainability.

These practices will not only increase company productivity, they will also go a long way toward addressing the systemic problem of the “extremes of wealth and poverty,” which is largely, though not solely, a product of capitalism practiced in an uncaring and greed-driven way. When workers share in company profits, these gaps in income will decrease. This is, in a sense, one example of what we call “a spiritual solution to the economic problem.”

So Yes. Capitalism (i.e., defined as a system based on the “profit motive” and not “greed”) if practiced in a moral, caring, and socially responsible manner can be a viable economic system.

Will the recent examples of women leaders in the pandemic help to bring about change in business as well?

Yes, I am very optimistic. We are already seeing examples. Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia (a B-corp) decided to close down the company early in the pandemic. She insisted that the most important thing is to keep employees safe. There are other business leaders who are striving to adopt these models and they are men. In my book Peace for our Planet: A New Approach, I describe how this strong constructive global consciousness has emerged in the last 200 years and is gaining momentum. Whenever there is a crisis, this consciousness shows itself more brightly.

Is there a new concept of power (rather than domination)?

Yes, in the 1990’s the idea of “soft power” emerged as opposed to military power. We are moving toward a greater realization of our oneness as a humanity. For instance, with COVID-19, if we don’t vaccinate everyone, we could all potentially be re-infected. We are moving toward a paradigm that is more spiritual and toward the idea of power as service. John Hatcher wrote that the only legitimate use of power is to establish justice.

Can you share practical tips on how to change the system, particularly the corporate system?

If we want to see a change in the world, we need to start to exhibit it ourselves. In our workplaces we can be caring, avoid backbiting and lift up other people. In the boardroom and in meetings, we can bring up the idea that certain choices are not just moral, but reflect enlightened self-interest. We can show how it is in the interest of the company to place emphasis on employees and stakeholders. Profit-sharing is a great example. It is a moral approach. But once you implement it, you see an increase in productivity because now the people have a stake in the company’s success.

What are some examples of feminine behavior that might be problematic? Can you speak to the misrepresentation of the feminine?

Whenever you have a system that has an inherent prejudice against any group, it will automatically focus on certain behaviors as generalizable to that group. For instance, gossiping is equally engaged in by male and female colleagues. But it’s more attributed to women than men. That’s because of a pre-existing bias.

It’s important to know that individuals will always be individuals and they are very different. The worst thing we can do is to categorize people. We’re not saying that women are great leaders and men are not. We’re talking about qualities that anyone can develop. We have to always avoid this kind of generalization if we are to move forward in our society.

How do we unlearn when we’ve had centuries of habituation regarding how we work and how we engage with labor?

Just asking this question is a great starting point: to know we must unlearn and why. It’s not an overnight process. The current pandemic might bring us closer to understanding the problem. We now know what kind of work adds true value to our lives. Whose work is valuable? What is superfluous economic activity?

When we talk about equality of men and women and we make women responsible for the equality of the sexes, how does that lead to answers?

All of these issues are human issues. Many years ago, people started talking about what came to be known as “women’s issues”. It was a good start. But in the 21st century, it makes no sense to talk about these issues as women’s issues. This is about humanity: women and men and boys and girls. It’s about the prosperity and well-being of all of humanity. We need to bring everyone into this conversation.

The majority of women still juggle nearly 75% of all the unpaid work required to run the home. How do we address this lack of fairness and balance?

This is one of the really important economic issues we have to address globally. Women everywhere carry the largest burden of work. It comes down to the system that’s been set up to glorify and give value only to the things men have been doing, not to the equally or more valuable things women have been doing. It goes back to changing the way we think. We need to work to establish more equitable laws and policies. In the final analysis, it means giving equal value to the work and existence of women as we do to men.

How does the behavior of parents at home contribute to the education of children and bring about the equality of the sexes?

The example we set at home is very important. We are shaped by the system and these ideas become internalized. If we don’t question these ideas, we act in a way that hurts us.

The first step, for both men and women, is to become aware of these unconscious beliefs. How can we come up with a new model? How can we internalize new ways of thinking and acting?

Research shows that the way we raise boys is extremely harmful. It’s harmful to our boys, not just to women. All human beings have every emotion: fear, sadness, vulnerability, love, shame, joy, anger. But we only give boys the license to express anger. And we teach them it’s okay to express anger through violence. This is harmful and it is institutionalized in the training of boys.

It’s extremely important to become aware of ourselves, to act with respect for equality of the sexes within the family and to teach by example.

Some key values seem to be emerging: justice, compassion, caring, strengthening human connections. How do we help these emerge in the corporate environment?

We need to have discourses and conversations with our colleagues. We need to go deep enough into understanding these issues so that we feel comfortable having discussions with people who see things differently.

Communication can’t happen if there is any hint of an adversarial position. Debates are a waste of time. If we can have conversations in compassionate ways, that is a starting point.

I hope we’ll come away with more enthusiasm and more interest in having conversations with our family, friends and coworkers.

You can also watch Roya Akhavan’s webinar on Wilmette’s youtube channel.



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baha’i-inspired global learning community, accompanying individuals and groups, to transform business + economy contributing to a prosperous civilization