Susan Cain gave a TED talk in 2012 called “The Power of Introverts,” in which she describes her experiences as a child at summer camp, life as an adult in the work environment (Susan was a corporate lawyer in the early part of her career) and the shift in our society to promoting and favoring extrovert behavior. She argues that with the advent of open-plan offices and schools adopting “pod-like” desk arrangements, we are fostering an environment that is honed towards allowing extroverts to excel.
Cain explains that being introverted is not the same as being shy or underconfident. Instead, it is the preference, or more the proclivity, to work better alone than in a group. She notes that one aspect of the difference has to do with the level of stimulation required for someone to feel alert and responsive or at their peak – introverts tend to perform best when there is a lower level of stimulation, and extroverts respond best to more stimulation.
Alongside this, there is a tidal wave of effort to ensure fair representation of women in all environments. Employers and others are talking about the imbalance “at the top.” Here in the UK, although the initial target of at least 25% of the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 board members being women has been met, there has been some criticism that the vast majority of these women are in non-executive roles. Attention has also been focused on political cabinets (with special mention to any country’s government that reaches the 50% mark – see reactions to Justin Trudeau’s announcement in April 2015 of Canada’s first gender equal cabinet). Many law firms in the UK have announced gender diversity pledges (with targets of around 25 to 30% female partners), but it is a fact that at this moment in time, women are underrepresented at the senior level of many law firms.
How do we ensure fair representation? In furthering efforts to ensure women are more justly represented in corporations around the world, perhaps it makes sense to consider Cain’s point. Women who display more extroverted qualities are probably more likely to make it to the top than those who do not. This is not only a struggle for women, but also men who are more introverted. There is, of course, something to be said for outgoing, risk-taking individuals, who identify as extroverts, deserving the top spot they fought so hard for, but as Cain points out, some of history’s most influential figures were self-confessed introverts. She cites Rosa Parks, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Mahatma Ghandi as examples.
True representation requires the full array of personalities and promotes difference at the top. Greater awareness of the tendency to favor extroverted characteristics is a crucial step to ensuring that women who are introverts are put forward for top positions across industries. “The Power of Introverts,” as Cain’s talk was so aptly titled, has the potential to make a real difference.
Almas Daud is an associate in Debevoise’s London office.
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