It feels very topical to be writing about women in the boardroom at the moment:
- McKinsey just published an article on ‘The global gender agenda’ to review the progress of women worldwide
- BBC 2 aired ‘Women at the Top’ not long ago, examining governmental and organisational policies that might stimulate the kind of change that could bring women into UK boardrooms
- Marissa Mayer’s appointment as one of the US’s handfull of female CEOs has stimulated a fair amount of online debate
- Helena Morrissey and her “30% club” are gaining traction in getting companies to sign up to the 30% target for female board membership (and they host a very interesting list of research relating to board diversity on their site)
…and it feels topical to me, personally, as a woman and a middle manager in a male-dominated industry. My company has taken steps to inspire and empower women, in the form of a board-sponsored network and quality targeted training programmes, but its statistics remain as disheartening as those of our wider society: women seem to be almost equally represented at my level and below, but one step up in the hierarchy and it drops off. Significantly. In fact, “significantly” does not quite convey the extent of my perception of the numbers when you get to ‘senior’ roles. I come from a generation and a background that has grown up with an assumption of equality. This issue was brought home to me the for the first time in my life when I had a meeting as, not only the only woman in the room, but as the only female direct report of any of the much more senior men in that room. Although a few more women (well, 2-ish?) have appeared in these reporting lines in the months following, that was an eye-opening moment for me: since then, I’ve remained much more open to discourse on this subject. Especially because I am convinced that the imbalance at my organisation is wholly unintended and a very big frustration of senior leadership.
Given that organisations want to achieve more equal representation, why does it remain such a problem? Why did women represent only 12.5% of FTSE 100 board members in 2010? What’s holding them – women, organisations – back?
The insight and accompanying solutions and/or public conversations seem to fall into three major interrelated categories:
The Ambition Gap
Women are less likely to have a clear plan for their careers and more likely to experience self-doubt that, critically, prevents them from making & taking opportunities (Institute of Leadership and Management).
What are people and orgainsations doing about this one? Organisations, like mine, are setting up networks that seek to inspire women, open their eyes to this issue, and give them the encouragement that they (apparently) need. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg did a great TED talk focusing primarily on this issue – “don’t leave until you leave,” having since become something of a mantra.
However, Sandberg’s talk is not without its critics. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s fantastic article in The Atlantic suggests that the ambition gap doesn’t explain the numbers on its own and, though the advice is valid, it may be simplistic – harmful, even – to point the finger at allegedly unambitious women when there are organisational, societal, cultural issues to address.
Keeping women in the workplace
We women are more likely – statistically – to a) have the choice and b) take the choice to opt-out of the workforce. And even when women choose to remain engaged in their careers, they are often the primary caregiver, the assumed primary caregiver, or simply less willing than men, Slaughter attests, to make the level of compromise needed to reach the upper echelons.
Her article, which I strongly recommend, challenges the need for such a compromise for either men or women in our connected world. It points to the need to really think strategically about the structure of our organisations and our very society if we want to solve this problem.
These mundane issues – the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office – cannot be solved by exhortions to solve the ambition gap. I would hope to see commencement speeches that finger America’s social and business policies, rather than women’s level of ambition … changing these policies requires much more than speeches. It means fighting the mundane battles – every day, every year – in individual workplaces, in legislature, and in the media.
Techniques to succeed in ‘The Boys Club’
For those women who are ambitious and who don’t yet experience the challenges inherent in building a family – i.e. women like me – what’s on offer is advice on how to succeed within the common organisational paradigm. The ;”>book I was given called that paradigm “The Boys Club” and was aimed, in particular, at women in male-dominated industries. It began by imploring us to play the game, “the smartest women in male-dominated industries know that you can’t win the game if you are not willing to play.”
What’s the game? I love games…
The game, Dr. Doyle-Morris rightly imparts, is to get noticed, get promoted. And the key to all the rules of that game is to understand that merit and performance alone won’t get you noticed – everybody’s too worried thinking about their own careers to stop and think about yours. This advice, useful to both men and women, may be more pertinent to women, she suggests, because women disproportionately disengage from ‘politics’, keep their head down in order to deliver results, embrace perfectionism, get more qualifications, etc. The more quiet stuff that doesn’t get you noticed.
This kind of advice seems to be quite common among women – and rightly so: you do care about your career more than anybody else and solid relationships across the business do get you noticed and do ensure you hear about opportunities at the right time. However, this advice is often tinged with an element of something I find a little more sinister and, for me, calls into question whether the issue of female board membership is wholly the right question in the first place.
The sentence that did it for me was this:
This is not to say that you must wear make-up to get ahead in a male-dominated workplace; it is, rather, to be aware that when it is mainly men who are awarding promotions, you will find it valuable to play at least this part of their game
The book does not go beyond a so-called boys’ club: it outlines the entry criteria. Somehow, this particular advice from a woman to women catalysed flashbacks of all the times in a previous organisation where certain key men held their palms up to stop me from speaking; where I was told to ‘pipe down’ and ‘stop nagging’. At that organisation, I wasn’t the only woman in that room, but I did represent a different perspective.
And that, I find, is a bigger challenge than my sex.
My particular specialism ensures I often am an ‘other’ perspective in a room and that experience across 4 blue-chip companies in 4 different industries has allowed me to observe (and participate in) some fascinating decision-making that seems to be driven solely by a desire to soften the experience of conducting day-to-day business. We invent business jargon so that we speak the same language and dull any… unpleasantness – we don’t disagree with each other, for instance, we just aren’t “aligned.”
Dr. Doyle-Morris tells us, “if you put people first, business will flow,” but she’s talking about colleagues, not customers; she’s talking about senior management and shareholders, not society. In big businesses, where poor decisions have real, but almost always unintended, negative consequences on the public and on the economy, can we really afford for everyone to be jostling to be the most noticeably, commendably “aligned?”
Should the question of board membership not be one of diversity of perspective rather than gender? For whom else do the rules of ‘the game’ mean exclusion from the upper echelons?
Do the rules of ‘the game’ tend to exclude those of concrete purpose and ethical standards – those more likely to question a group – from climbing the ranks?
What do you think?