Women – Not Second Best!

folded armsA recent study, ‘The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness’ said that women are unhappier now, after 40 years of feminism, than they have ever been before. It received a lot of media attention in the popular press giving a platform for the old chauvinists to surface with remarks from the like of Stuart Rose, (C.E.O. Marks and Spencer,).

He claimed that the ‘girls’ in his company have no glass ceiling to worry about. I think the clue is in the disrespectful and patronising use of the term ‘girls’, Sir Stuart!

Sir Stuart’s comments were made in the Observer newspaper but they are contradicted by The Fawcett’s Society’s (an organisation campaigning for equality) Dr Katherine Rake. She said there was still no flexibility for women at higher levels of business and that the top strata is generally white and male and does not encourage women’s participation by being more flexible in their working styles.

Women Must be Like Men to Succeed

I think educated women are rejecting the idea of equality currently on offer. On the surface it looks like we have been offered equality; in fact, we have been offered places at a table designed and set by men for men.

Think about it, in my lifetime (I’m in my early 50s) workplaces were inhabited almost exclusively by men. Women had very secondary roles, in a supportive capacity. My school primarily offered girls secretarial and teaching options and the concept of equal pay was laughable.

Try this experiment in your office. Just ask any group of working women how many of their mothers had careers, by which I mean worked full time for a significant period of time. There will be a quite a few, I suspect, maybe as many as half in any office.

Then ask how many of their grandmothers had careers. I suspect that there will be hardly any.

In just three generations the gender make up of the world of work has changed dramatically. But women are still making their way in a world designed by and for men.

And we’re in a catch 22 because if women behave like men they are often described as aggressive and unfeminine but if they exhibit their more feminine side it is generally not valued in the male dominated world of work. Male characteristics and styles are still more highly valued. Is it any wonder than many of us are opting out and the highest number of small business start ups are coming from women?

On Being Gender Bilingual

It is true that equal opportunities legislation has meant that most companies now have an equalities policy in place. And some of them are fantastic. There is a huge trend towards diversity and most large organisations use this term to mean a wide range of areas, covering complex issues of difference in the workplace, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, physical difference, cultural diversity and in this they also put gender.

It is interesting to note that over half the population is put into this category with women being incorporated within the diversity tag. The implicit assumption is that women need help in becoming more like the dominant class, (white males) in an organisation, and if we can be coached to behave like the dominant culture all will be well. The expectation is that women must change.

But women are not a minority culture and we don’t need diversity support. We need to be in organisations that treat women like women and men like men, of whatever diverse background they come from. We need organisations that value the contributions from both genders equally and are not implementing policies to ‘allow’ women to behave like men.

The Economic Case

Women and men have differing leadership styles. It stands to reason. We are different in so many other ways so why not in leadership styles? Organisations that enable both genders to flourish will be the organisations that thrive.

For example, women make 80% of all purchasing decisions. And women do not respond to the same marketing strategies that men do. And they do not respond to the one dimensional approach of let’s do it the same as we usually do but just in pink!

Responsive companies are adapting their style of working to be gender bilingual. The car manufacturer Volvo is a case in point. They used an all female team to research and design a concept car based on what women wanted, and said, ‘meeting women’s expectations makes us exceed the expectations of men’.

If women are underrepresented at a senior level in your organisation maybe it’s time to ask the following questions:

At what grade or level do women stop applying for/being promoted to senior jobs?

Has an analysis been made of the reasons why?

Is there a clearly non gender specific ideal leadership profile for the organisation?

Is there succession planning with a pool of both gender high potential employees?

Is the progress of women monitored and questions asked of managers when there is an discrepancy in numbers of female employees and numbers of female managers?

Recommended reading, available from Amazon or your local library
Why Women Mean Business by Wittenberg-Cox & Maitland published by Jossey-Bass

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Posted on September 9th, 2009 by

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