Why Still so Few Women at the Top?
Business Voice, May 2004
A recent report published by Demos, the left of centre think tank, has come up with the not the altogether unusual finding that ‘new girl networks’ are challenging the traditional authority of men in organisations. It shows how in the civil service, these are allowing women to tackle workplace gender inequalities as well as allowing them to advance their own personal careers. The report says that these women are able to ‘have it all’. But how far will this strategy take them? Will it lead to their equal representation at the top level, in the corporate boardroom?
This is a sensitive issue. It goes without saying that there is hardly a practicing manager that does not embrace the principle of equal opportunities. It is now accepted, and not before time, that women are a huge reservoir of talent that for too long, too many companies have overlooked in their promotion stakes. It is an absurd aspect of organisations in both the private and the public sectors that women often make up the majority of the lesser paid employees but no more than one-third of middle managers and scarcely five per cent of those in the top positions. We are way behind the Scandinavian countries on this score. It is an issue that is becoming of vital significance to the UK economy since eighty per cent of future employment growth until 2010 will be provided by women. One half of them will be mothers with dependent children.
I can see how new girl networks help to overcome some of the barriers. Legislation and the commitment of the CBI and trade unions to implementing equal opportunities policies can only achieve so much. Too often not enough women come forward for promotion because of their own lack of self confidence. As the Demos report shows, all girl networks can help to overcome this. They can offer sources of advice and act as bonding mechanisms in a similar fashion as the ‘old boy network’ operated historically, particularly in the upper reaches of the civil service. To be selected and to ‘get on’ you had to be the right kind of chap. Someone who had acquired through schooling and the elite universities, the appropriate interests and personal styles that made up the traditional civil service definitions of effective leadership. It had its great strengths. Personal loyalty, public duty and commitment to the ethos and values of the civil service were at a premium.
Today, meritocratic values pervade the civil service. That is notwithstanding the much publicised instances of cronyism that is a frequent accusation of the present government. So in this day and age it could be expected the civil service would be leading edge in promoting women into its top grade positions. Of course these things take time. Graduates of the eighties- at the time when equal opportunities was at last being taken seriously- are now only in their forties. It is only now that we would expect these high achievers to be moving into top posts. The next few years will be vital in assessing the impact of equal opportunities at the top echelons of organisations. And also the extent to which corporate cultures have changed. How far has a rhetoric of gender equal been translated into corporate operational realities? I fear the answer may not be as far as we had hoped.
Organisational cultures are difficult things to change. It may be easy to get colleagues to say the politically correct things when asked by their bosses to do so. But to change their hearts and souls is quite a different matter. Male managers have built into them generations of assumptions about the nature of gender roles that perhaps now are only beginning to change. Our ideas of leadership, decision taking and personal enterprise remain male inspired. Sport plays a key role in organisational cultures; particularly in Britain. And these are very male dominated sports: football, rugby, cricket and golf. What gets discussed around the coffee machines in the morning, during the lunch breaks and in the after work drinking? It is no wonder that women feel excluded as though they are corporate outsiders. It is here that new girl networks can make a difference.
But after all is said and done, will all girl network initiatives get women to the very top? To be a CEO or top grade civil servant is now a 24/7 job. They are on call at all times to attend meetings at any place and at anywhere. There are of course super women who are prepared to do this. But they are few and far between. This is why we see the photos of this select few so often in the business and broadsheet press. They have a curiosity value.
The reality of human biology, at least at the present, is that women can have children up until their late thirties. This, in fact is the age when corporate high fliers decide to have children. But it is exactly at this age that the grooming for the top positions occurs. Women in their late thirties are faced with dilemmas. One choice is not to have children. Another is to ‘outsource’ the child rearing process to others: nannies, carers and then to boarding schools. Or the other is to do the great balancing act of trying to be all things to everyone. But no matter how far super mum can be super corporate colleague, can she really drop everything to fly to New York for a business meeting? Can she be on call 24/7? Can she be totally immersed in the demands of CEO responsibilities? Even when they live with the newest of ‘new men’ partners? I have my doubts.
The development of new girl networks can do a lot to advance the opportunities of women in broad spheres of corporate life. This is an initiative that most of our major companies have now taken on board. But to get more women into the very top jobs will require a far more fundamental change in the attitudes and values of both men and women in not only are organisations but in the wider society. It is a challenge we should all relish to embrace-and the sooner the better.
© Professor Richard Scase