Only Male Fireflies Can Fly: Is That Fair?

1024 682 Roddy Carter

As fireflies light up the spring, I invite you to marvel at their flashy science, and use Mother Nature to inspire us on our journey towards gender equity in the workplace.

It’s about the time of year in the northern hemisphere when young girls and boys run around the yard trying to catch little fairies that light up, ascending from the earth in enchanting dances. As the fireflies emerge, they climb skyward looking for mates, closely followed by excited children, bored by the conversations of adults at the barbeque. I hope that everyone gets the opportunity to enjoy little hands clutching a bottle of glowing insects. It’s a magical experience for all.

Whether you call them fireflies or lightning bugs, we’ve all been mesmerized by their bioluminescence. That’s the fancy name for the chemically induced light that glows from their lower abdomen. It’s a cold light without infrared or ultra-violet frequency. The flashing light is thought to be purely for mate identification. Not all of the almost 2000 firefly species have bioluminescent abilities. There are many diurnal species for whom this is largely irrelevant. The nocturnal and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) species all communicate through these magical sparks.

Most members of the Photinus genus (which includes the Common Eastern Firefly, Photinus pyralis, the most common north American firefly) share one thing in common: only the males can fly.

This fact quickly takes me to a human organizational context, and I ask the question “is this fair?” What if only men could fly? Well, for a long time that was true in corporate life; only men could fly. Sadly, the vestigial bias remains highly prevalent in modern organizational life. According to a 2015 Catalyst Survey, only 4.8% of S&P 500 CEOs are women. The gender imbalance is also present at the board level (19.2% women) and the senior executive level (25.1% women). It is abundantly clear, that due to a complex tangle of reasons, including male protectionism, mainly men can fly!

I don’t care if I tread on any toes when I say that this is grotesquely poor judgment. Not only do I find it morally indefensible, but I also believe it to be plain stupidity. I have yet to see an argument that justifies a gender bias in leadership ability. On the contrary, with a single exception, my best bosses over twenty years of employment have been women.

Sadly, the bias that is most prominent at senior levels also prevails across the entire employment sector. According to the US Census Bureau, women in the US earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by a man in an equivalent role. This is up by 17 percentage points from the 61 cents earned by a woman in 1960. At this dismal pace of change, with less than one third of a percentage point improvement each year, we can expect gender equity in US income no earlier than the year 2085. What a tragic indictment!

Let’s return quickly to our magical little fireflies. There is absolutely no evidence that Mother Nature designed non-flying females with any prejudicial intent. Instead, she institutes pragmatic design, where physical differences (which may coincidentally be associated with gender) drive role delineation. Of course, a few loud (and in my view, ignorant) voices clamor that gender maldistribution in corporate life reflects differences in ability. It’s not the loud voices I worry about. What alarms me are the meaningful numbers of (largely male) leaders today who vote against equity in the workplace by their actions.

As you see the telltale flashes of light rising out from the freshly cut lawn this spring, please join me in marveling at the science of bioluminescence. Please also join me with your leadership action in accelerating the normalization of our corporate constructs, ensuring that women are equally rewarded and incented towards the great American dream. And when you come across flashes of inspiring leadership, capture it in a bottle, marvel at it for a few moments, and then release it to illuminate the entire world!

Have fun,


(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

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  • Kirstin

    What is the evolutionary science behind female fireflies inability to fly? I’m pretty sure it has to do with mating and their primary biological responsibility to carry and nurture offspring. Although I entirely agree that there should be no male female prejudices in a corporate world, or any sort of world for that matter, are these percentages more character driven? It would be interesting to look closely at personality traits of leading figures and then look at statistics based on that (without differentiating between genders). Perhaps these successful qualities happen to be more prevalent in men and therefore the numbers presented here are justified? Mother Nature works in complexly beautiful ways and each person is biologically wired to perform their task most optimally. In the fireflies case, the females are gifted with the strength in ability to nurture their children while the males are gifted with their ability to flirt with their flash! It’s a highly successful system as we continue to fill jars every year. Regardless, the argument of salaries has no valid explanation. There is no reason women should be paid any less!

    • Roddy Carter

      Kirstin, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I hope these little fireflies will evoke magic for children for ever, and prompt debate that continues our momentum towards true gender equity. Roddy

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