15 February 2010 By Northern Lights
Why has this phrase become so widely used and accepted in everyday life and relationships – yet its principles overlooked in the workplace?
Michael Skapinker of the FT last week wrote about the continuing lack of women at senior levels in the workplace and covers the current debates on when and how women will make it to the boardroom. But in all the topical research on this subject, no-one is really asking – do women want it?
We have moved on from the 1970s when (we) women felt we had to be the same as men. Most women now seem to be confident about being themselves at work – and it is fine if that involves being feminine and consultative.
Yet there is still an issue on how this filters through to the boardroom
Skapinker says, “A report on inequality in the UK said last week that girls had better educational results than boys at 16, went to university in greater numbers and achieved better degrees once they got there. ‘More women now have higher education qualifications than men in every age group up to age 44,’ the report said.
In the US, 57 per cent of college graduates in 2006-07 were women. Women form the majority of all graduates under 45.
Yet few women make it to the boards of companies in either country. In the UK, the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards rose fractionally from 11.7 per cent to 12.2 per cent last year, according to the Cranfield University School of Management, but that was only because of a fall in the size of the boards.”
The article goes on to suggest some explanations: because women have children, take career breaks, the culture of large corporates, the difficulty of flexible working at senior levels. The case is also posed that older women could return to the workplace now that their children are grown and free spirits.
Skapinker points out this is not necessarily all about gender, “no one, male or female, gets to the top of anything without neglecting friends and family. It is as true of reaching the chief executive suite as it is of winning an Olympic gold medal.”
Over the years I have been involved in a number of research projects looking at this worrisome case of women in senior positions. The most interesting, I think, was carried out by the Change Partnership (when part of Whitehead Mann and now Praesta) with a large number of senior women. It highlighted that many women have had boardroom positions within their grasp – but chosen not to take them.
This research was presented in the north to an evening gathering of around 50 senior women, some ten years ago. And at question time, it was clear that half of the women in the room related directly to the research. A few had gone on to boards and so hated the culture they had left and set up their own businesses. Others had turned down directorships and most had gone on to be self-employed or working in smaller businesses.
While family played a part in some of the decisions, it did not seem to be the compelling motivator. Very few gave up work altogether. Many were working exceedingly long hours, travelling and carrying out demanding board-level type work. But they were in control of how the work fitted into their lives. I don’t remember anyone saying they felt discriminated against. And I went away with the feeling that those women were going to achieve whatever they wanted – but boardroom positions were not featuring heavily on that wish list.
There have been a number of lesser research projects looking at how some women have ‘succeeded’ and I have taken part in some of them. It is usually a desperately frustrating exercise: the questionnaires are riddled with underlying assumptions that women are facing daily discrimination and that we have battled to get where we are – whether that was in a corporate career or starting a business.
As Mike Skapinker points out – men and women face the same challenges getting to the top. My own view is that women may have a different view of what ‘the top’ looks like. You will not find many people more passionate about equality than I am – but perhaps we have to accept that Mars wants different things out of working life than does Venus.
Real power is about making your own decisions. Equality is about having the same genuine opportunities for decision-making. So, provided women have genuine opportunities and real power they might just create their own working environments rather than adopt someone else’s tired old model. I think we call this entrepreneurial behaviour!
We agree that many many talented women are finding new ways of defining success at work. It’s exactly why we started our blogsite and survey, http://wherethebrightwomenare.com/ – to find all of those bright, cool, talented women that surrounded us at school uni and through our 20s working in media and advertising. But who seem to have disappeared from corporate life as they reached their 40s.
Do we think it’s fantastic that women are proving so entrepreneurial? Yes, of course. Do we think it worrying, even so, that so many women are turning away from corporate life? Hugely, actually. We go into this in more detail on our site, but if our corporations, our government and our media are so dominated by male board members, then they are by definition serving one gender better than the other. This is evident in everything from the design of the cars we drive to the stories that are deemed front page worthy in our press to the legislation that we all live by.
As we tweeted last weekend (we tweet as brightwomenare), it’s kind of incredible that the Sunday Times ran a front page headline on 7 March, both on and offline, along the lines of ‘Drink up girls: wine isn’t fattening’.
It’s not surprising that so many women turn away from climbing the corporate ladder. A company that produces reductive, patronising content of this nature can hardly be an inspiring place for a bright, talented woman to work.
I have spent years as an entrepreneur and that path has taken me 3 times to directorships in male dominated businesses and each time I have found I have lacked the fundamental skills that make for a successful board member. I have failed to become adept at the kind of male power play politics that are essential if you fancy dominating the piece in the board room. I have remained resolutely determined not to know or care what the football results are and I won’t play golf. Refusing to meet “boys” on their own terms leads to exclusion and a feeling of difference. The very qualities that pundits claim are missing in the board room – the female voice, the different perspective, the voice of reasoned debate and argument and, most of all, the articulate ability to discuss motivations behind behaviours, are the qualities that make it difficult for women to join in and play the corporate game.
My choice is to create my own values driven business that does not have to conform to corporate standards that have their roots in male public schools. Superficial bonhomie and rapport based on trite tribal customs do not cut it for me. Real businesses grow from the kind of communication that requires emotional intelligence – not reading the paper from back to front. Women have seen what board rooms look like and they vote with their feet. Life at the top is not all that it is cracked up to be.
if powerful men have been in charge then the culture and also the structure and philosophy of management will support that position. we used to use the word ‘patriarchy’. an ideology so embedded that most of it is implicit and under the surface.
e.g. to stay in control and on top you need a plan which you make your subordinates follow (business planning) based on a worldview (systems theory) that requires an external controller (boss).
Once you start digging where do you stop?
UK worker coops like suma use a very different ‘no boss’ form of management and governance. is it better? hmmm i think we still have along way to go. the old ways keep seeping back in. people default to them when they cant think of anything else.
but there are relationship, communications and process based management models which do not start from the assumption that ‘someone’ has to be in charge.
the distributed work patterns of the internet smash up old power structures so maybe we will see organisations starting to use these new ways. or maybe the patriarchs (male and female) will adapt.