The Huffington Post released an article recently in which Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, said that women are the "secret sauce" behind his company’s success. If you are unfamiliar with Alibaba, imagine the Chinese version of Amazon.com and you will have a pretty good idea of exactly how successful Ma’s company is. Alibaba is China’s biggest online marketplace, and has resulted in a net worth of over $24 billion for Ma himself.
Exactly what do women (who, according to Alibaba, makeup over 40 percent of all its
employees and nearly 35 percent of its high-level managers) contribute to the company’s
success? According to Ma, it’s the distinctive qualities commonly associated with female
leadership that are making the difference. In particular, the more collaborative and communal approach women typically take to communication and problem-solving. “Men think about themselves more; women think about others more,” Ma said. “Women think about taking care of their parents, their children.”
No sooner had the Huffington Post quoted Ma, than they began justifying his observations for their core audience, who apparently finds it quaint, if not outright offensive, to assume that certain leadership styles are inherently “female.” That’s a shame, because Ma’s affirmation of feminine leadership styles is desperately needed. By openly stating that this uniquely feminine style of leadership is effective and necessary for success, Ma is encouraging a broader concept of leadership identity that would be more inclusive of traits most women naturally display. The fact that the Huffington Post felt it necessary to couch Ma’s comments in the context of cultural relativism to make them more palatable to their readers shows how far we really are from including feminine expressions of leadership in the workplace.
And why do I, as a Pastor, even care about this? What difference does it make to me? In Ma’s comments, I see regard and respect for femininity. He is essentially saying, “Women contribute something distinct and valuable to our company’s success. Women are essential to the success of our company because they bring a perspective and strength that men do not bring.” In today’s social climate, some people might see Ma’s statements as sexist, but I don’t see them that way. If feminism should be anything, it should be the affirmation of what it means to live – and lead –be like an actual female!
Ironically, Ma’s point of view aligns with the Christian view of maleness and femaleness. Men and women do, in fact, bring different contributions to the table of life and leadership. But too often we women believe that to be effective leaders we must conform to stereotypical male styles of leadership – tougher, more results oriented, less empathic, less community-minded. Otherwise, we fear, we will be labeled as “weak leaders.”
In the area of valuing female expressions of leadership and the distinct qualities that go with it, the church might be ahead of the curve for once. We have a Biblical mandate to acknowledge and affirm gender differences while championing the contribution of both men and women within the Body of Christ. As such, we are in a great position to begin, like Jack Ma, to see the unique leadership qualities that women bring to the table as a sort of “secret ingredient” for success.
The Huffington Post might have wanted explain away Ma’s celebration of gender differences in leadership and keep them neatly contained on the China mainland, but I don’t. Hopefully, Ma’s attitude will catch on in the United States and we will see the notion of “great leadership” expand to affirm and celebrate leadership styles that are distinctly feminine.