What if it isn’t women who are the problem?

By Carole Pemberton

Anyone who has been interested in the issue of equality at work for some time, will have grown weary of endless reports noting the slow progress towards greater representation of women on UK Boards.  It seems as though every sector has to go through the same research process to come up with similar findings.  The reports are then followed by a flurry of activity: mentoring programmes to get women prepared for the top. Initiatives such as the 30% Club where powerful men commit to increasing the diversity in their Boardrooms.  Debates between those who believe only quotas will force change,and those who pin their hopes on organisations setting their own voluntary targets.  But, what if the problem is not the skill or confidence deficits of women, or the working patterns of organisations, but more fundamentally the culture of the organisation.

In an Observer interview MP Stella Creasey  quoted research that showed that when there were 17% of women in the group, the men thought there were 50% women, and if the percentage crept up to 33% the men thought there were more women in the room Woman in the boardroomthan men.  So, rather than 30% being a tipping point for women ‘s movement into the Boardroom, it may be a saturation point.  What this evidence suggests is that organisations develop cultural norms, and it is those cultural norms that have to be altered if women are to get beyond token presence in the most senior roles.

That same point emerges from McKinsey’s recent report “Moving Mindsets on Global Diversity”.  In it they report that female executives are ambitious and confident of their own abilities to become top managers but they are much less confident that their company’s culture can support their rise.  Rather they see cultural factors as twice as likely as individual factors to influence their confidence that it is possible to reach the top as a woman. The women report being as ambitious as their male peers, they are no less likely than their male peers to accept that ambition means sacrificing one’s personal life, but this is not enough, if they are making those claims into an unwelcoming environment.

So what sort of culture instils confidence that it is worthwhile offering skills and commitment in the expectation of recognition?  McKinsey reports that where women have greater confidence that they can get to the top they report that:

  • The prevailing leadership style is compatible with women’s leadership and communication styles
  • There is a match between the aspired gender diversity agenda and the culture of the organisation
  • It is not difficult to communicate their ambitions and promote oneself.

Where women have less confidence they speak of a lack of support and engagement in the agenda from male colleagues.  There is a reluctance to recognise that it is harder for women to achieve top management. Male colleagues are less convinced that women can lead as well as men, and the lower down the organisation the male colleague sits the less convinced they are.  The Chairman may be signed up to the 30% Club, but if key career gatekeepers lower down are not convinced that women are capable of taking a place there, they will never reach sight of the Boardroom door.

Given this research was conducted in the private sector, it would be easy for the third sector to point to its successes.  To women who are visibly leading organisations, to Boards where women have a majority presence, but do we remember those because they are the exception?  Asking the question, do we make visible a culture in which any woman with the skills and commitment  could make it to the top, is a useful opener to exploring what may still need to change if organisations are to gain the benefits of gender diversity.


One Response

  1. Thought-provoking as ever but I’m not sure how this moves us forwards…

    Plenty of people – not just women – would like the corporate culture to be less aggressive and more supportive but expecting the world to revolve around us and for organisations to change themselves is going to take too long for most ambitious and driven individuals.

    How about these same ambitious women (and men) drive for success, put up with it being less than perfect on the way to the top (like we all have to) and then set about making change from a position of influence? They would then be leading by example and more likely to inspire others to follow…


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