How Much “Power Distance” Between Men & Women?
With the many real-life stories and experiences included, The Culture Map by Erin Meyer was an enjoyable read. I appreciated how the author took us into the various cultures and gave us a first-person view of what it would be like to lead there. I was drawn to the chapter entitled “How Much Respect Do You Want?” due to the fact that it dealt with the topics of hierarchy and egalitarian styles of leadership, which of course is right in line with my chosen topic of research. It was fascinating how Meyer highlighted how different countries functioned within these different styles of leading so naturally and how shocking it was for leaders to cross over these boundaries and try to lead from their own culture’s point of view.
I enjoyed reading about one such leader named Ulrich Jepson, a Danish executive for Maersk, a Copenhagen-based multinational container-shipping company. He says “managing Danes, I have learned that the best way to get things done is to push power down in the organization and step out of the way. That really motivates people here.” Due to the culture he was raised in, his natural leadership approach was egalitarian, and this is the way everyone expected to be led. Jepson also observed, “The rules of equality seem to be deeply etched into the Danish psyche. Although a lot of Danes would like to change this, we have been bathed since childhood in extreme egalitarian principals: Do not think you are better than others. Do not think you are smarter than others. Do not think you are more important than others. Do not think you are someone special.” Interestingly, since he was so gifted in leading with this egalitarian approach, he ended up getting promoted four times in four years due to. This took him to a recently acquired Russian operation where he encountered a complete culture shock. It didn’t take him long to discover that in Russia “all of the problems are pushed up, up, up, and he had to do his best to nudge them way back down.” This was the opposite of what he was used to and forced him to shift in his leadership style in order to gain respect in the hierarchical setting, while at the same time teaching them new ways of efficiently getting things done.
Meyer also states, “most people throughout the world claim to prefer an egalitarian style of leadership, and a large majority of managers say that they use an egalitarian approach themselves. But evidence from the cross-cultural trenches shows another story.” I notice this quite a bit in many churches and organizations as well. They like to think of themselves as egalitarian because it sounds fairer or politically correct, but they actually function more patriarchal in practice. This can be very deceiving to people who are attending these churches or working for these organizations, expecting them to be equally respectful to both genders. When people or couples are living with an egalitarian mindset and a church or organization advertises itself as such as well, these people feel duped when they discover the truth (see my wife’s incredible dissertation for more on this topic :-). It would be helpful if we could all be honest with ourselves when it comes to our true level of egalitarian leadership so those we interact with can know what to expect, and we can know where we might want to grow and change.
Geert Hofstede, a professor of social psychology, developed the term “power distance”, defined as “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” This seems to be something that exists in most organizations but is rarely recognized. I also think men and women are treated differently when it comes to the concept of “aura of authority” and how people respond to the boss. “In an egalitarian culture, for example, an aura of authority is more likely to come from acting like one of the team, while in a hierarchical culture, an aura of authority tends to come from setting yourself clearly apart.” Since women tend to be more egalitarian by nature and work to minimize the “power distance”, they can be less respected for their leadership abilities or authority. This must be why women are flourishing more in countries like Iceland, Norway, and Finland, which lead the way in the area of gender parity according to the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report…sadly, the United States ranks 49th on this list. Interestingly, the countries at the top of the list have cultures that are more egalitarian to start with, so working towards equality with the genders seems to be more natural.
I also thought it was fascinating to read about the influence Confucius has had on the Asian countries when it comes to their strict hierarchical leadership structure. The Confucius structure for societal order and harmony, called wu lun, outlined five principal relationships:
Emperor (kindness) over Subject (loyalty)
Father (protection) over Son (respect and obedience)
Husband (obligation) over Wife (submission)
Older Brother (care) over Younger Brother (model subject)
Senior Friends (trust) over Junior Friends (trust)
Looking at the above list reminded me of our American church culture quite a bit. The focus on the wife submitting to the husband seems to be very common and further adds to the lack of balanced submission even though the scripture says “submit to one another”. This form of hierarchy that pushes down women does not help close the gender leadership gap. Interestingly, the author states that “though Asian countries have begun to move past these narrowly defined roles in politics, business, and daily life, due in part to growing influence from the West, most Asians today are still used to thinking in terms of hierarchy. They tend to respect hierarchy and differences in status much more than Westerners.” Although we may have influenced them culturally, it appears to me that many companies and organizations in the US still operate with a fairly hierarchical model with elaborate flow charts illustrating the proper chain on command. I biasedly feel this would be different in this country if we had more females in leadership positions bringing their more collaborative, egalitarian approach to the table.
 Erin Meyer, The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures, (New York: Public Affairs, 2014), 116.
 Erin Meyer, The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures, (New York: Public Affairs, 2014), 130.
 Erin Meyer, The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures, (New York: Public Affairs, 2014), 131.
12 responses to “How Much “Power Distance” Between Men & Women?”
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Another perfect chapter for you and your dissertation research. They are serving up on a platter for you, my Brother (grin).
In your hierarchal research, does the word ‘patriarchal” come up often? As I read, I have been seeing it more and more. Trying to understand different cultural contexts, I have been intrigued at so called “matriarchal” societies. Which of the societies in the world are most “matriarchal” and what is a thought you could give me on that?
Thanks Jay, it seems to be working out to find at least one chapter that fits pretty well, or maybe I force it to 🙂 Yes patriarchal seems to go hand in hand with hierarchical models often. There are not many matriarchal or matrilineal societies but the top ones I have found are the following:
and my favorite one is Themyscira, where Wonder Woman is from 🙂
I am curious how these societies exist and why they are dominated by females…I definitely have more research to do.
Is it stilly considered matriarchal if there are no men actually present on the island Jake? LOL
What stands out to me from your post, Jake, is that in the Confucian Wu Lun, the husband’s stance towards the wife is one of “obligation.” Wow. This help enlighten and underline how pro-woman Paul was when he insisted on “love” as the proper stance!
I agree Jenn, I would much rather have a spouse who loves me opposed to one who is obligated. Yes Paul’s pro-women stance gets missed quite a bit and it definitely reflects the position Jesus took. Thanks for your comments.
Great post and focus, as ever!! The story of the Danish CEO was interesting, and raises a challenge for us. Let’s say an enlightened egalitarian mission leader was working and living in an oppressive non-egalitarian context. There is a strange tension between leading the new culture into reforming itself, and not imposing one’s (foreign, but egalitarian) culture on the other. To impose one’s “enlightened” values on the new culture smacks of colonialism. I suppose the pathway forward would be quietly modelling a new way. What do you think?
Great analogy Mark, and yes we have found the best way to win people over to egalitarian ideals is to model mutual respect and love people over. It was definitely inspiring to read about how the Danish guy worked with the culture he was placed in. Thanks for your thoughts.
Jake, keep leading the charge on egalitarian culture! You are doing a brilliant job of using this blog to further your research! Kudos to you! I am fascinated by the leadership styles of down, down, down, vs. up, up, up. I really need to think about my style and determine if I need to change my ways. Where do you see yourself?
Thanks Jean, it has been fun to have some books that add some good material to my topic…and yours 🙂 I love that down/up philosophy as well and think it is much more productive to push leadership and decisions down as a leader instead of bogging things down with pushing them to the top. Although I think the down direction is the most effective, I feel like I have a hard time giving up power in order to do that, so that is what I need to work on. Thanks for your thoughts. See you mañana.
Jake, though it is no secret that we do not always see eye to eye on this subject; I do believe we both see that there is still a large lack of respect that goes with most patriarchal societies. Even within the church and family I may hold more of what would be seen as a “patriarchal” viewpoint, I also believe that there is supposed to be a loving reciprocity of respect that is responsible for making it work properly. I am not a sexist pig; though sadly, I have known way too many of them within the church structure. Relationships are supposed to be an equal sharing of responsibility and support, and only when that is done properly does the system work in a Godly manner.
Great post. I appreciate the dedication you have to your topic and your life pursuits. I believe the unity and love you share with your wife in your ministry is obvious.
great post JAke. Im not sure how I would do if I was thrown into a russian hierarchy like that. Ironically my family is russian although its not longer very russian at all. But after reading Meyer, I still see tones of that attitude in my grandparents and even parents.
In my current role I’ve found myself attempting to be more egalitarian although often giving too much power to people who are not ready or equipped for it yet. Im learning there are times to be committee and consensus based and other times to act differently. The book Primal Leadership talks about this.
Wow!! I am so glad I read this!
I learned some interesting things:
“women are flourishing more in countries like Iceland, Norway, and Finland, which lead the way in the area of gender parity according to the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report…sadly, the United States ranks 49th on this list”
I am wondering if this is still true today? This was only 5 years ago.
I enjoyed this blog very much-the content and the flow! Thank you for addressing this issue in a direct and knowledgeable manner.
Your buddy from APU