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The cultural challenge

24 August 2015

The cultural challenge  - read more

Odds are fundamentally tilted against women, says Anthony Hilton

Much has been made of the increased representation of women on the boards of public companies. There is no doubt major strides have been made as the target of 25% representation on the boards of FTSE 100 companies is now secured.

What has been less successful however, are efforts to get more women appointed to senior roles in operational management. Although there are some women chief executives and more serving just below board level on the executive committees, overall the numbers are thin.

The reasons for this are less straightforward than one might think, according to a highly experienced female executive who was one of the most senior women in Proctor & Gamble and several other large companies.

Her point is that there is normally a fairly even split in numbers of women and men recruited from university into the junior ranks of management in most businesses. They remain fairly evenly matched throughout their twenties, and it is only in their thirties when they get to middle management that the proportion of men begins to increase.

The conventional explanation is that women take a career break to look after children, but her interpretation is completely different. She says that women opt out when they have had a taste of middle management because they have a choice. They exercise this choice in middle management because when they are there they find men get difficult. Men typically become far more interested in stitching each other up to secure a promotion, than in quietly getting on with the job and doing what is good for the business.

Some women grit their teeth and join in the little boys’ games, but the majority cannot be bothered so opt out. Initially they look for a company where talent counts more than politics. When this turns out to be impossible they opt for motherhood. The other choice, rather than take time out to raise a family, is to start their own business or join an early stage start-up where cultures are not entrenched. Thus there are few women in senior management but – according to recent statistics – more women than men now start new businesses in the UK.

A single person’s analysis could be dismissed as unrepresentative but that would be a mistake. Just a few weeks ago it was substantially supported by research produced in the United States by consultants Bain & Co, albeit they used slightly more circumspect language.

In the field work for the study, the consultants sought to measure women’s aspirations at different points in their career. They found that in the early days – the first couple of years after joining a company from university or business school – women are actually significantly more likely than men to have aspirations to rise to the top. However when asked again five to 10 years later this changes. Among middle management more men than women want to get to the top.

Why the change? It appears that the more women see of the behaviours needed to get ahead, the less they want to be part of it. The study cited one woman’s experience of an evening with senior male colleagues where they recounted their ‘war stories’ of how they had secured this order, the hours they worked to meet that delivery deadline, the number of weekends spent deliberately losing at golf to sign up such and such a client. Listening to these tales she decided it was not worth it.

The lesson of this research is that the real problem is not the challenge of raising children or the lack of suitable role models; it is the embedded male culture within business. If we are ever going to have gender equality in management then we have to reconsider what passes for success in organisations. What does an employee have to do to get noticed and get ahead? What are the achievements which put one employee ahead of another in the eyes of senior management? What does one person do which makes it more likely that he or she will secure a promotion?

The Bain research – and one suspects most anecdotal experience – suggests that these triggers deterring women are usually the macho and transactional measures of hitting targets and getting business. They tend not to be measures which highlight the more relationship driven skills of teamwork, motivation and improving productivity through more collaborative and efficient working. The former stereotype is one which plays to male strengths; the latter stereotype reflects a female approach to working.

In most businesses, perhaps because of history, or more likely because they have always been run by men, the male stereotypes get valued and the female stereotypes get ignored. Thus the odds are fundamentally tilted against women.

There is ample research to show that organisations with greater gender diversity outperform similar businesses which are not diverse by as much as 15%. The benefits are well documented. Yet the men at the top, and their human resources departments, may not be even remotely in the mood to launch such a challenge to existing culture.

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