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'The Operating System of the 21st Century': John Gerzema on Femininity and The Athena Doctrine

Athena's broad range of qualities and skills are a symbol and namesake for best-selling author John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio's new book,. A more apt title would be hard to find.
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Picture of a young confident woman working at a start up. Perfect image representing women in the workplace
Picture of a young confident woman working at a start up. Perfect image representing women in the workplace

In Greek mythology, Athena is commonly known the goddess of wisdom, often associated with the qualities of courage and inspiration. More than that, Athena serves as a patron of sorts to many disciplines, ranging from the arts to just warfare. Heroic in nature, Athena could even be considered the original 'Renaissance Man.'

Athena's broad range of qualities and skills are a symbol and namesake for best-selling author John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio's new book, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the men who think like them) Will Rule The Future. A more apt title would be hard to find, as the book demonstrates how traditionally feminine traits are bringing success to people and organizations around the world and in all sectors.

Gerzema and I first connected last December at the TEDxWomen 2012 conference in Washington, DC. His compelling, fact-based and contextual presentation skillfully addresses leadership, career management and change management -- but in a radically different way from what our management textbooks instructed.

In it and through it, Gerzema and D'Antonio make the argument that traits we see as traditionally feminine -- collaboration, expressiveness, intuition -- are being valued higher than ever before, both in the workplace and across human culture. He backs up this fascinating thesis with interviews of 64,000 men and women from around the world, crystallizing their stories and experience into useful examples. Among the facts that emerged: 81% of men and women both agree that you need both masculine and feminine traits to succeed in today's world.

Gerzema and I sat down to discuss the inspiration for this massive project, how traditional feminism can learn from the book's findings, and why "femininity is the operating system of the 21st century."

Laura Cococcia: How did you come to write The Athena Doctrine? What initial ideas, observations or events inspired you to kick it off?

John Gerzema: I was asked by Denise Morrison, the CEO of Campbell's, to speak at a mentoring event she was hosting for young women -- and was overwhelmed by the positive energy that filled the room. Right away, just being present at this event, you got this strong sense of nurturing, collaboration and selflessness. It occurred to me that you couldn't put 60 men into a room like this and get the same effect. That got me thinking about the role of feminine traits in our society -- in leadership, morality and happiness -- and I decided to examine how men and women across the world perceive feminine traits and explore how the most innovative among us are leveraging these traits for the betterment of all.

LC: What would you say is the main thesis of the book? And, how confident were you when you began your research that you could prove it, and did your thesis change over time?

JG: All leaders, male or female, innately possess feminine qualities like empathy, candor and vulnerability -- the difference lies in which leaders choose to suppress those qualities, and which choose to leverage them as strengths. So at the core of our book is this notion that feminine values are an underutilized competitive advantage. Again and again, our data and interviews kept showing us that femininity is the operating system of the 21st century -- and that women, and the men who can think like them, are creating a world we'll all want to inhabit.

LC: The Athena Doctrine uses a truly stunning amount of research to prove its point that our world is valuing feminine traits more than ever. Did you face any unexpected challenges or prejudices while collecting information on women globally?

JG: Well, my co-author and I are both dads in all-female households. But we were very sensitive to the fact that we lacked expertise and context. We anchored ourselves in analytical rigor, and we were fascinated by what emerged. We asked 64,000 men and women in 13 countries to classify 125 human traits by both gender -- what do you consider masculine or feminine? -- as well as which are most important to leadership, success morality and happiness today. What we found was widely held dissatisfaction with old, macho-style social structures -- 74% of our respondents said they feel the world is becoming 'less fair,' 76% feel their country's leaders care less about their citizens today and 86% feel large institutions and corporations have accumulated too much power.

LC: Did any of your previous notions about masculinity and femininity in other countries shift during the project? What surprised you most about your results?

JG: What was most surprising to us was that two-thirds of people we surveyed feel the world would be a better place if men thought more like women -- including 79% of Japanese men, 76% of French & Brazilians and 70% of Germans. Everywhere, people are beginning to question masculine notions of control, aggression and black-and-white thinking -- and instead are favoring more empathetic, nurturing and collaborative approaches.

LC: Do you have any thoughts on how the feminist movement might be able to gain even wider acceptance from both men and women through aligning itself with research like yours?

JG: There has been a lively dialogue out there about the role of women in today's society. Anne Marie Slaughter has spearheaded a smart conversation around whether women can have it all, and Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In advises women striving to balance their lives with meaningful careers. But the message we have is this: If you are a woman, be you. And if you are a man, open up. It's not about women leaning in to the ways of men, but the other way around. Feminine values are universally human traits inside us all. And they're vitally important for today's times. And the more we can all tap into our feminine traits and model a feminine approach, the more progress we'll make in advocating for the rights of women and children. Men need a way into this discussion and framing women's issues as innovation and value-creation is our aim.

LC: How do you think the Millennial generation will influence the trends you describe in your book? Is it possible that the vital necessity for resourcefulness and entrepreneurship among Milennials, who can feel shut out of the traditional job market, will have an additional impact on our 'feminizing' world?

JG: The Millennial generation has been hugely influential in the trends we've identified in our book. Technology, the financial crisis and globalization mean we live in a world that's increasingly social, interdepen­dent and transparent -- and as a result, young people around the world don't see differences the way previous generations did. For instance, we found that Millennials have a much stronger appreciation of femininity and the role of women in their society. Three-quarters of Japanese and South Korean youth are critical of male behavior, and two-thirds of global Millenni­als. There's even a double-digit generation gap between Millennials and men in Germany, South Korea and India. The strong emergence of pro-feminine values in highly masculine societies signals that traditional masculine structures will continue to be challenged as the Millennial generation grows up and gains even more influence.

For more information on The Athena Doctrine, visit Gerzema's site or follow him on Twitter.