Over recent years we have seen untold column inches and broadcasting minutes given over to the lack of women at a senior level in almost all organizations. But organizations are pyramids and the number of openings at the top of the pile is limited, leaving competition tight for men and women alike.
Only 18 women running Fortune 500 companies, 3.4% of the roles and only a further 19 head up the Fortune 1000 to reach the giddy heights of 3.8% of roles. This overall and much publicized discrepancy suggests an abysmally poor number in relation to the other 48% of women in the workplace.
So why are we so pre-occupied with these numbers?
According to Ilene H. Lang, President of Catalyst “Women in corporate leadership can also send a critical message to people entering the workforce. Women leaders are role models to early and mid-career women and, simply by being there at the top, encourage pipeline women to aspire to senior positions. They see that their skills will be valued and rewarded”.
But what happens when these senior women are not interested in the women in the pipeline? How do we evaluate the impact of that particular critical message on their juniors? Not all women who reach those elevated heights are treated correctly just because they are senior. We saw this very clearly last year with Virginia Rometty being excluded from the Augusta Golf Club. Nor are they necessarily interested in taking a stance either for women in the pipeline or crusading for women in general, just because of shared gender.
Look at Marissa Meyer. Back at the office before we could say “post partem” after the birth of her baby and now cutting tele-commuting at Yahoo. Many women are dependent on the benefits of workplace flexibility and will be seriously dismayed at this development. But Meyer is there to get Yahoo back in the game and gender repercussions are not on her agenda. Besides she has her own private nursery in the C-Suite which is her own work/flex benefit.
So truthfully, gender balance changes can be introduced just as successfully by men, as they can be catastrophically up-ended by women. I can’t help but wonder why we focus so much energy on women achieving these point positions. Could it be that this energy is mis-directed and more focus is needed for the women in the metaphoric trenches?
At the risk of seeming frivolous I’ve identified profiles of women at the top who don’t seem to care about the women below them.
- Alpha bitches: these women, not through any particular ill-will, just think that women need to suck it up and get on with it and believe the contribution they make trail blazing and paving the way for others is sufficient on its own. They believe the women below them should be grateful. Their modus operandi is “step up or shut up”. They are just simply not interested in what goes on in the ranks in gender terms. Men or women just need to get the job done. End of!
- Business first brigade: these women are corporate bodies to their cores and although they may champion gender balance policies, this is only if they don’t interfere with bottom line imperatives. Virginia Rometty, turned the other cheek (even joked about it) when she was snubbed by the Augusta Golf Club in April 2012. IBM’s overall business interests seem to come before striking a blow for women, or even presenting the mildest reaction to a very public slight. If she made any comment then I have not seen it. Was she taking a hit for the team? Possibly. But then she was appointed Chairman in October 2012. So we’ll never know if it was vested personal interest or corporate acumen!
- Men in Skirts: these women are the only women in the room and are OK that way. Unlike the alpha bitches, they are pretty oblivious to their female colleagues and have been completely absorbed and accepted into male corporate culture. They don’t feel they have done anything special because of their gender. They are not averse to other women being there as long as they fit in.
- Mascara Mafia: they are at the top of the pile and like it there. They have clawed their way to the top with their French manicures and are not letting anyone else in. Unlike the Men in Skirts they enjoy being in the minority and actively want to protect their patch. This is the famously quoted “Queen Bee Syndrome.” Dr. Sharon Eden British psychologist told me this is rooted, even today, in women being genetically hardwired for child-bearing reasons to keep the best men for themselves. It’s old fashioned protection of the species! In a 21st century corporate environment the “best men” are found at the top of the organogram.
- Genuinely Oblivious Gang : they have never encountered any gender issues in their own careers, they are completely mystified and have no idea what all the fuss is about. A sort of raised global eyebrow “que?” or “quoi?” about it all. “What gender issues?” they ask. “So 1970s! Hasn’t that all been taken care of?”
So are the demands we make on our women leaders to expect them to care about the women coming through the ranks simply unrealistic? Is this another reason to let them get on with it and shift our focus to the pipeline?
What do you think?
Thanks for the candor about women in the workplace. We really must get beyond the women vs. men workplace contest and recognize that while each gender has some unique characteristics, both are prone to good and bad behaviours. Much media attention is given to proving that women are somehow better leaders / managers than men. Gender isn’t an indicator of management quality. Let’s get on with improving the quality of the workplace through better leadership.
Hi Alan – agree totally. Balance is key and men just as equally as women can introduce successful diversity policies. As we have seen with Marissa Meyer – she has a comapny to turn around an business imperatives rule. This is partly why I’m bored with boards -let’s focus on the talent pipeline which is where most women (and men) are concentrated.
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Thank you for sharing an alternative perspective Dorothy, very interesting. I do agree with Alan Kay here, being female does not provide an automatic qualification as a good leader. Women need to be coached, mentored and developed as much as men and also treated as individuals! It is also worth remembering that not all women (or men) want to be reach the “top of the pile” but see success and gain satisfaction by excelling at their current role.
I agree with you too, we need to focus on the talent pipeline in general, nurture and develop all talent to ensure that everyone has an equal chance – then we will be able to enjoy a truly diverse and more effective workforce.
Thanks Katherine- I agree. Being a senior woman doesn’t necessarily mean that she will promote the interests of junior women. That can be done equally by supportive males.
Great article, Dorothy. I particularly like the five profiles of women who don’t care about their fellow women. They illustrate my experience of many years working both in the corporate sector and as an executive coach.
It does not help, or indeed solve the problem if we take a line of ‘let’s ignore the gender and focus on the talent’. Hiding behind the talent-banner will, if not reinforce the problem, keep it at status quo. Otherwise we would not have the same problem for decades. After all there is evidence that women do better at universities, and there is a lot of them in the lower ranks workforce. It’s hard to believe that there is not enough talented women out there, or at least equal amount to talented men.
Gender equality should not be the starting point, but the goal itself, and
I do not see us reaching this goal without actively and deliberately swinging the pendulum to the other side. I am not suggesting we should employ non-talented women, for the sake of gender equality. However, I don’t see that becoming a problem anyway, because there ARE many talented women out there who somehow fall between the cracks when it comes to recruitment, career development, talent pools, mentoring etc.
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Dina – sorry I missed this comment. I agree there are a huge number of talented women who either are not being recognised or who lack the confidence to put themselves forward. Having senior women who nurture that talent will be vital I think. Thanks!
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