On March 7th, as the world celebrated International Women’s Day, I attended the Women in Leadership event sponsored by PwC and CIPD. The reception area in the beautiful PwC offices overlooking the Liffey was choc-a-bloc with female executives. Whoever came up with the line: ‘Blessed art thou amongst women’ never attended one of these gatherings as the Lone Ranger. A couple of other men eventually turned up and we were guaranteed safe passage. As a man, I know that discussing gender issues is risky; I feel like a member of the Bloods entering into Crips territory in Los Angeles, but here goes …
Color Blind: I recall sharing an elevator in New York with a guy wearing a label pin proclaiming: ‘I’m Color Blind’. It seemed strange to be highlighting a disability and I prayed he wasn’t an electrician. Turned out that the slogan meant he wasn’t racist. In similar vein, I have always believed in ‘gender blindness’; the only issue to be considered in managing people is performance. But, it’s sometimes difficult to be aware of your own bias and I went along to the PwC gig to see if we would emerge with something beyond the normal stereotypes (women can multi-task and are better on ‘soft’ agenda stuff). A series of presentations was led by Dr. Elizabeth Kelan, based on her book Rising Stars – which specifically focuses on managing Millennials. This group (often referred to as Generation Y) are people who’ve entered the workforce after 2000. Today’s kids; tomorrow’s leaders.
In Addition: In consulting, when all else fails, we check the numbers. The current statistics paint a depressing portrait. Within the FTSE top 100 companies, 2 CEO’s are women. Across the Fortune 1000, the numbers are a tad stronger at 4.2%. In terms of board level representation, the number is 8.5%. So, despite the fact that this topic is on the agenda ‘forever’, women are still massively underrepresented in senior executive roles. This is the 50:30:10 rule (50% of women at entry level; decreases to 30% in middle management and 10% in senior management). That’s the question. Finding exact answers to ‘why is this the case?’ and ‘how can women themselves and organizations change this?’ proved more elusive. A couple of interesting points emerged…
Managing Millennials: Do we need to manage this group (both men and women) differently than older employees? It raised some close to home points. For example, when you were growing up, do you have a strong memory of negotiating with your mother what you’d eat for dinner? And, did you specify the particular store where your clothes should be bought? (to the very best of my knowledge, there was no Abercrombie and Fitch in Cabra West when I was growing up). Yet, this is how we manage our children today and they continue to expect a level of democracy when they clock in at work. They are also speed freaks, in terms of career progression. About 3 months ago, I was talking to a clever young guy studying to be a solicitor. He’d just completed a 5-day work experience programme in a prestigious legal firm. When I asked: “How did it go?” he said: “Not great. They expected me to be their bitch all week”. I’m not sure what exactly he thought he’d be doing; arguing Constitutional Law in the Supreme Court perhaps? Maybe we should insert a new compulsory subject (called delayed gratification) into the Leaving Certificate! However, this is a generation (not specifically a gender) issue.
Gender Fatigue: In relation to the topic of managing women, there is an element of gender fatigue (“Are we still talking about that?”). But in what Dr. Kelan described as Gender Discrimination 2.0, some of the issues have become more subtle and this can make it more difficult to raise the topic of women’s career success without being labeled as a nuisance or, worse, someone “looking for somewhere to hang their disappointment”. But, if you consider the numbers cited earlier, this issue is still potent; in Gerry Adams terms, it ‘hasn’t gone away you know’. The centrally important issue for me is not fairness per se, it’s improving organization performance. Where senior male (and female) managers have unconscious bias, it ignores the potential and talent that exists across the workforce.
Golden Skirts: To quota or not to quota? (that is the question). Should there be mandatory quotas across management groups and company boards or is this solution actually counter-productive? In one amusing reference, we heard about ‘golden skirt’s – senior women who are already on company boards and who argue against a ‘fixed % of women’, partly based on a fear that this would dilute their own power and downgrade their currency (sometimes referred to as the Queen Bee Syndrome, where people kill off their rivals – a behaviour which is not exclusive to women). While some people argue strongly that promotions should only be on ‘merit’, an alternative view is that this simply has not produced the goods. Two additional points, which did not directly emerge at the seminar, seem particularly important; confidence and kids.
More Confidence: My own experience of working with women in relation to career and promotion issues is as follows. I’ve had a version of the following conversation with several women. The Prompt: “You are being actively considered for the ‘X’ Post. How do you feel about that”? Does this look like a good move for you?” The Response: “I’m flattered but…this could be a mistake. My experience in that area is ‘light’ and I may not be ready for that role”. Playing that same tape with men, the answers are more often along the lines: “Yes, I’m up for it”, “You won’t’ be disappointed” and “When do you want me to start?” I’m exaggerating (a bit) to make the point that men of average ability often display more confidence than women with superior ability. Example: One woman recently discussed a concern in relation to the reaction of her peer group if she got promoted. I can honestly say that no man has ever raised that particular concern with me and I don’t ever expect to hear it in the future. In the testosterone world, that falls into a ‘That’s their problem’ category. The Lesson: Organizations need to make a real effort to build the confidence of women to take on executive roles. In the early part of their tenure, ensure they get off to a flying start by providing external coaching or internal mentoring (a cohort of successful women provide role models for others to emulate).
Having Kids: Walking away from the seminar I got chatting to one of the women who attended the seminar. She said: “The Elephant in the room was not mentioned at all”. We discussed the impact of having children on women’s careers (look away now if you are of a sensitive disposition).
a. Crazy Hormones: When some women become pregnant, it can affect their mental functioning for a time. Not all women – but enough for this to be a real issue. As they often feel that they have to ‘hide’ this, it becomes an unmentionable topic. Being pregnant is a medical condition, but it’s not a disease. Organization Response: Make pregnancy and the impact of this discussible.
b. Unsupportive Cultures: Some managers (both male and female) feel that women ‘let the team down’ by not delivering the baby in the morning and being back at their desk that afternoon. The fact that some ‘superwomen’ actually manage to do a version of this – is not particularly helpful. Even where time out is taken, coming back into the workplace after up to a year’s absence is difficult. You never step back into the same spot in the river. Organization Response: Women need support to get back into the job. Check in frequently for the first month after they return to ensure that women get fully back into the role and feel welcomed and productive.
c. Terrible Guilt: When the Human Genome project is completed, I’m predicting a major discovery. Men will be missing the ‘guilt gene’. Just talk to women who leave a new baby (with the granny, nanny, crèche) to know what real guilt looks and feels like. When asked to ‘trade’ between having children and having a career, many women choose to focus on the children. This is particularly acute where there are ‘2 executives’ in the house (several female clients have said to me: “I need a wife”). We need to re-imagine how organizations will work in the 21st century. It’s not kids or careers; it’s both for those who choose this. Organization Response: Can you make life easier for staff with agile working arrangements? (e.g. organized grocery shopping completed on line).
d. Childcare Costs: The average cost of childcare is running at €1K net per month. Add in the cost of commuting, lunches, clothes etc and you are soon running into the ‘it’s costing me to go to work’ space. Organization Response: Look at more flexible ways of working, including working from home. When Marissa Mayer the new CEO of Yahoo – recently decided to discontinue telecommuting, she arguably turned the clock back by several years (this topic is complex and we will return to it as a separate point).
Instruction to CEO’s: The first step is to be really honest in this space. How well do you manage the women who work in your organization? Put this squarely on the agenda for the senior team and come up with some real insights – all the time asking ‘how do we know?’ Once the issues are understood, you have an opportunity to develop some homegrown solutions to ensure that you are not under-utilizing 50% of the talent pool (or steal best-practice ideas from elsewhere). Forget the philosophy and fairness arguments and focus on improving performance. Irrespective of gender we should all be judged by our achievements. That’s a good place to start. The Prize: Developing a pipeline of talented female executives – without compromising performance – will give you a huge advantage in the talent wars.
Your job is to start that conversation.
PS More Information? Visit http://pwc.blogs.com/gender-agenda/. Congratulations to both PwC and the CIPD for keeping the research agendas alive. It’s worth getting a copy of the book (not the easiest read) to look at the signature practices in some leading organizations – including PwC itself.
PPS: Lighter Note: Two guys were sitting next to each other in a bar. After a while, one looks at the other and says, ‘I can’t help but think, from listening to you, that you’re from Ireland….’
The other guy responds proudly, ‘Yes, I sure am!’
The first one says, ‘Same here! Whereabouts in Ireland are ya from?’
‘I’m from Dublin.’
The first one responds, ‘So, am I! Where in Dublin?’
‘A lovely little place. Warbury Street in the Coombe.’
‘It’s a small world. That’s where I’m from! What school did ya go to?’
‘I went to Holy Heart of Mary’
The first one gets really excited and says, ‘I don’t believe it! What year did you finish secondary?’
‘Well, now, let’s see. It was 1994.’ The first bloke exclaims, ‘The Lord must be smiling upon us! I can hardly believe our luck at winding up in the same pub tonight! Can you believe it? I graduated from Holy Heart of Mary in 1994 meself!’
About this time, Michael walks into the bar, sits down, and orders a beer. The bartender, walks over shaking his head and mutters, ‘It’s going to be a long night tonight.’ Michael asks. ‘Oh, why’s that?’ The bartender answers, ‘The Murphy twins are pissed again’.
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