Skip to content

females can’t sing

March 18, 2014

Image: The Girl Can Sing. (John Young) via

I was told it is true. They can’t.

Ever since Darwin determined it to be so in The Origin of the Species birdsong has been defined as something that males do. The primary role of the female is to listen and then choose a male to mate with. If you don’t believe me look up “birdsong” in a dictionary or a text-book. Males have the power to vocalise their desire, females listen and choose. Males use their song to compete, to get ahead, to defend their territory and secure a nest for their mate.

And yes, I can already hear your objections, there are some females who sing. They are rare and they are considered atypical. That is how it has been for, well, hundreds if not thousands of years.  That is the story we and all the researchers since Darwin’s time have lived in. It is what we are taught in schools and in Universities and, like everything else we learn, that makes it true. Females can’t sing.

Except it is not true. Turns out we got the story wrong.

Recently publicized research from the University of Maryland, the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University and Leiden University in the Netherlands overturns what has been a long bias in songbird research. It concludes that female song was present in the ancestors of all songbirds, and today remains in 71 per cent of the songbird species surveyed. Dr Naomi Langmore, from the Research School of Biology at ANU, found Australian species including include lyrebirds, fairy-wrens, honeyeaters, fantails, whistlers and magpies feature bird song from both males and females and that female birds are able to ‘whistle up melodies equal to those of their male counterparts’.

Dr Langmore concludes, ‘Female song can no longer be considered an evolutionary oddity.’

We got the story wrong and that is important because the story prevented researchers from seeing what is right in front of their ears. No one has ever disputed that birdsong is a powerful capacity to use in the competition for food, nest sites, mates and territories. Despite daily evidence to the contrary the common wisdom was that only the male of the species had that power.

As of today you know different.

The stories we live in determine our futures. Believing I am too skinny, too old or not funny looking enough to achieve my goals will mean that any evidence to the contrary, like female birds singing, will be considered an anomaly. A belief that I have always been a bookish type and not good at sports will present a huge barrier to my participation in any sport at any level at any time in my life.

Believing that I am not capable of leading will mean that, despite evidence to the contrary, I will not look for opportunities to lead and I am likely to decline them if they are offered to me.

More damaging though are the stories we tell ourselves about other people. The media, Government and others in positions of power know this to be true. It doesn’t matter what the actual qualities (positive or negative) of the person or group concerned, if I can get you to buy into my story about them then I have enormous influence over how you treat them.

Good CEOs know it too. They know they need to do more than just hold the vision. They need to tell the story about what it is all about. If they have no story, they have no influence.

When you have finished here read this HBR article “Stop fixing women and start fixing managers“. Notice the call for the CEO to frame the issue differently?

It is a call for CEOs to tell a different story.

The lesson beginning to emerge as companies’ progress on gender balance stalls is that we have relied on the wrong analysis of the problem [the wrong story!]. We have spent decades thinking that the lack of balance in business was caused by women doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing or even wearing the wrong thing.

We have spent far too long believing that females can’t sing. They can and they do, as well as or better than males.

But it goes further than that.  The stories we tell ourselves about what qualities are needed to succeed in business date back two centuries to before Darwin. Are you certain they still hold true in the face of  evidence to the contrary? What if we held a story that said that empathy, collaboration and teamwork are the critical capabilities we need to succeed in this century and the next? What would our leaders look like then?

Your ability to become aware of the stories you live in, to be open to and welcome evidence (new or otherwise) that shifts or changes or completely overturns your stories is a skill that will determine your success as a leader and the quality of the future we all will live in. It will be difficult but if you agree with me that change is required then that is where we need to start.

Change the story, change our future.


If you would like me to come and share with you and your team the insights that come from the experiential learning environments that I create, make me an offer via the Contact Me page.

If you enjoyed reading this or my other posts and you would like to read more, you can subscribe and receive them via email simply by putting your email address into the Email Subscription box just on the right of my blog home page. You will receive a confirmation email (which some systems will think is spam so keep an eye on your junk mail) that you need to acknowledge to complete the subscription process.

After you have subscribed, send this post on to your friends. Go on. You know at least one person who should read this post and three more who could use a bit of shaking up… seriously. Do it now. You read this far so send it on! I promise they won’t judge you or think less of you if you do.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: