The ‘Problem’ with women

First, let’s look at some facts. The proportion of women in the workplace increased from 29% in 1950 to 47% in 2011 . Women are receiving more education and entering the workforce at a faster pace than ever before. In fact, women out-perform men at most universities. 63.9 % of women graduates obtain a first or upper second degree compared with 59.9 % of men .

But when we look at top management and boards, the picture looks very different. In the UK, women account for only 17% of FTSE board positions . In the US the number is 16% . In politics the picture is not much better. The UK Parliament has 22% women and the US Congress only 17% women .

Why is this even important? Studies have shown that gender balanced teams make better decisions and achieve stronger results. Companies with a high proportion of female leaders have higher increase in shareholder value than those that do not. This awareness has led to many organisations in the UK and elsewhere to start initiatives in the past decade to deal with the talent gap (see figure below) or sometimes known as ‘The Women Problem’.


But despite all these efforts, the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) ranks the UK 18th, down from 9th in 2009, and the US 22nd (23rd in 2009), after countries like Cuba, Philippines and Lesotho, on gender equality. And the latest studies from Cranfield School of Management and The Professional Board Forum have found that the number of women appointed to boards in the UK is less than half of what it was a year ago.

So, what is really the problem? At the risk ruffling some feathers, I have compiled a list of what’s holding us back… the common sins both men and women are guilty of:

The 9 Sins of Gender Equality

No.1 Ignorance in High Places
I had the displeasure of listening to Chris Wiscarson, Chief Executive, Equitable Life and Subramanian Ramadorai, Vice Chairman, Tata Consultancy Services, on the topic of Boardroom Diversity: a Man’s Perspective at the Women of the Future (WOF) Summit last week. When asked the basic question: “Why do you want women on boards?” the best they could come up with was: “Because they are at least as good as men.”

Not sure if this was by design or accidental, but WOF certainly managed to illustrate the ignorance that unfortunately exists. Numerous studies have shown that gender diversity produces better results. Studies from MIT published in 2010 showed that with more women the social sensitivity in the group increased, leading to 30-40% better outcomes. Other studies show that female managers perform better than their male counterparts at the upper levels of management.

You’d think Chris or Subramanian might have cited some of this or at least come up with a better answer. Instead the embarrassment continued with simplistic ideas like: “Let’s change the wording in Boardroom Diversity Booklet because women aren’t inspired by words like courage.” Really? What sort of women do you work with? …and finally Subramanian desperate attempt to save face: “I really like working with women. I have women in all my support functions.”

I’m glad you’re happy with your female administrative staff, but with all due respect, Mr. Ramadorai, I think you’re missing the point … unless you plan on appointing your secretary to your board?

No.2 Thinking Structural Change = Culture Change
A Norwegian born and bred, I never considered my opportunities limited by my gender. Growing up there in the 1980’s, the vast majority of us had mothers and fathers who both worked full-time, and numerous strong women role models to look up to like Hanna Kvanmo and Gro H. Bruntland.

I’ve since had the privilege of living and working in the US, Japan and the UK, experiencing those and many other different cultures in the process. While it is easy to place Nordic countries up on a gender equality pedestal (as the GGGI does), I think we should be careful to assume that copying what works there in the UK and US will magically produce the same results.

Culture trumps quotas, guidelines and systems any day. In Norway, we have a long tradition of eating dinner with the family, and thus leaving work at 4pm to go home and see your children is not frowned upon. In Japan, face time is very important and leaving the office before your boss is unheard of. Thus ‘working’ until 10-11pm is not uncommon. In the US, there is an expectation that career comes first and family time is for the weekends. In the UK you either work late or go to the pub, you certainly don’t rush home to pick up the children if you’re serious about your career!

I’m not arguing for or against structural changes or quotas. All I’m saying is that simply enforcing quotas and extending maternity and paternity leave and pay does not turn the UK into Finland (the GGGI’s highest ranking country) or the US into Norway. Nor should that be the aim.

We have to stop thinking that simplistic structural solutions will create culture change. The failure of most organisational change initiatives is an excellent example of how starting with structure to force through change is not only illogical, but usually hugely unsuccessful. People support what they help create. Much like large-scale organisational transformation, the gender issue requires a persistent and systematic grass roots movement supported by the very top, and many, many years of conscious effort by all of us. And each country and organisation needs to find a model that works for its own culture and people.

No.3 We Are Our Own Worst Enemies
For every woman fighting for gender equality, there is another one doing us a disservice.
What male dominated workplaces need is a substantial number of women who are strong, capable and stand up to any sexist behaviour. But that is rarely the case. I’m glad women are no longer expected to look and act like men to be in business. But that doesn’t mean we should use our looks or gender to get what we want either. In many ways, gender equality has gone backwards in this regard. At a recent visit to BI Norwegian Business School the undergrads look more like they’re auditioning for a modelling job than going to class. A director in a London firm I know uses short skirts and coercion to get what she wants. Some women purposely cry to influence their male colleagues. These women are enforcing biases and stereotypes and making the path just that much harder for the many, many competent and professional women out there.

Another example is how women treat other women. Many women act bitchy, catty, jealous and are sometimes outright bullies toward other women. As women today the pressure is on. We have to be beautiful, successful, intelligent, good wives, good mothers … the list goes on. We might have wanted female liberation, but I don’t think we really thought this one through. The pressure has never been more intense (and often self inflicted!) and yet here we are tearing each other down, putting sticks in each other’s wheels. Why? It’s not like there are too many women at the top… and the only thing you end up doing is looking insecure and pathetic.

No.4 Not Speaking Up
We cannot sit around and wait for promotions and salary rises to land in our laps. Nor can we except to be noticed if all we do is sit quietly in meetings and only speak when asked. Want a promotion? Go ask your boss what you need to do to get one. Think you deserve more pay? Go ask for it!

Early on in my career, I used to be very passive in meetings. But as anyone who’s worked with me recently can testify, I’m anything but now. I see so many women, especially junior ones, who take a passive role, afraid to say something stupid, think out loud or come across as aggressive. Participation doesn’t mean you have to be bossy or aggressive, you can contribute and discuss in a collaborative way. The key is that you participate. Otherwise, you won’t get noticed and people will assume you have nothing interesting to say.

No.5 Not All Women Want It
This isn’t a problem, but just a fact more people need to be aware of. The truth is not all women want the demands and hard work that come climbing to the higher echelons of business and political life. The same goes for men of course. But perhaps, because of biology and societal expectations, a higher percentage of women feel this way.

Some women these days also feel like they don’t need to prove anything, but rather have the choice of career, motherhood or a combination of both. And that’s what it should be all about. Choice. And even though it can be hard to understand people very different from ourselves, if what they’re doing makes them happy, we need to shut up and respect their choice.

If a higher percentage of women don’t want it, then a merit based 50/50 split at the top of business and politics is unachievable, and we need to accept that. How so? Well, assuming men and women are equally talented, equally educated and entering the workforce in equal numbers, then there is no way we will ever achieve 50/50 at the top while more women are still opting out… unless we want to include less qualified women just to meet a quota! The goal shouldn’t be 50/50. The goal should be that men and women all feel they have the choice and opportunity to do what they desire … and that we compete on equal footing.
This brings me to my next point.

No.6 Men Are Scared of Strong Women
Even considering that some women opt out, I believe 30-40% is achievable in today’s world. But there are plenty of qualified women out there who are not being appointed to management teams and boards due to one specific fact. Many men are scared of strong and intelligent women. There, I said it! I’ve seen this manifest itself in two ways: (1) highly qualified women candidates are not chosen due to some made-up excuse from the selection committee and (2) meek women are appointed to tick the gender box, but with the knowledge that they won’t say much, and thus control is held safely in the hands of men.

Worried this might be happening in your organisation? Things to look out for: (1) the kind of women that are hired and promoted, (2) the kind of women the senior decision makers have chosen to marry…

No.7 Choosing The Wrong Life Partner
Sheryl Sandberg has been talking about this recently. I couldn’t agree more. In fact the only piece of advice I have for ambitious women choosing a life partner is to choose one that loves that fact that you’re driven, strong and intelligent. And I’m not just talking about on the surface, but someone who deep down finds this one of the most attractive parts of who you are.

Easier said than done, but better to be single than having to fight the battle at home as well. As women, we do so much damage tearing ourselves down and putting immense pressure on ourselves to be some mythical superwoman, we shouldn’t make the battle harder by spending our lives with someone who doesn’t bring out the best in us.

No.8 How We Raise Our Daughters… and Sons!
Culture change starts with us. Think about the language we use, the expectations we have of men and women, boys and girls… and how biases are embedded in every fabric of our society.
As parents, educators and role models it is our responsibility to bring out the best in the children around us and help them realise their potential. Yet, mothers’ still treat their daughters as dolls and smother their boys to the point of being incapable of washing their own clothes. Sometimes the problem is so much subtler though. Why is Sally seen as being too aggressive whereas Tom is considered assertive? Why is it a problem if Jane hasn’t got married at 30, but no one worries about John who’s 40 and single.

I truly believe we are only limited by the boundaries of our own thinking… and as adults we help shape those boundaries in the children we spend time with … making them see through a narrow lens (“you should marry a rich guy”) or a wide screen (“you can do anything you set your mind to”).

No.9 Playing a Victim
The best way to deal with sexist colleagues and bosses is to prove them wrong through your work. Some women spend too much energy playing the victim or blaming the system. I think this is nonsense! Yes, the system is unfair. Yes, you’ll probably have to be smarter and work harder to become Chairman, CEO or Prime Minister if you are a woman …or a minority for that matter. That’s life.

Taking everything personally and letting it get to you only hurts you. If you actually experience harassment, speak up, but if someone just gave you a compliment or made you uncomfortable once, let it go. Instead, spend your energy participating, learning and growing as a strong, female leader. The sooner you do that, the sooner other people will start treating you like one.

Last but not least, I’d like to say that the question of diversity goes far beyond gender. To fully take advantage of the potential in our workforce, we need to see past the usual categories like gender, age and race, and focus on creating diversity of thought – embracing and encouraging subtle differences in values, habits, perspectives and assumptions. Only then will we have diverse teams, organisations and with it, a massive increase in potential.
In many ways it amazes me that it’s 2013 and we’re still talking about gender and glass ceilings. It just goes to show how unevolved we truly are.