We’re 14 years into the new millennium. The economic empowerment of women, something The Economist called “arguably the biggest social change of our times” (2010), is a major factor in a fast-changing landscape. And yet the representation of women in decision-making positions in both the public and private sectors is still limping along at a surprisingly slow pace.
Most organisations are now aware that there is a powerful business case supporting the need to bring vastly greater numbers of women into senior decision making positions. They know that women represent 60% of university graduates worldwide and that 70% of consumer-spending is in the hands of women. They probably are even aware that almost all aspects of corporate governance are improved with the presence of women on the Executive Committees or on the Board of Directors. They might even have learned that any ratio relating to profits and return on investment is enhanced with even the presence of one woman director versus a company that has a 100% male Board.
And yet, there is still almost no progress being made in balancing the genders at the top levels of decision-making. The figures for the US for 2013 show that no progress was made at all. The Nordic countries lead the way but, for the world in general, almost no gains have been made for the last decade. How can this be?
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, in a recent article, quotes a report published by King’s College London (sponsored by KPMG) which states : “The lack of women in an organisation is a management failure.” This is wider than just a lack of CEO commitment to change. It also encompasses a failure by top leadership to truly understand the scope and scale of the organizational change required to ensure that this balancing of the genders takes place.
Balancing the genders in society is going to be a major shift from our current practices. It will require changing the conversation and culture of business, and this won’t happen without tremendous commitment, effort, and training. Even knowing the details of the business case , which shows the value of having more women ‘at the top’, is clearly insufficient. This is probably because the solution requires so intense a change in all aspects of business. No less than a profound questioning of the assumptions underpinning the social systems that currently exist is needed.
The approach that has existed so far – to ‘fix’ women or to somehow mould them to fit into the male-dominated culture that currently exists – will not work, and is of no benefit to society anyway. What is truly necessary is for men and women to work together to build a whole new social order – comprising both the business and personal lives. The lack of progress, then, is not surprising. It’s this enormous task that seems to have eluded the leadership of companies to date.
It appears there’s a divergence of thinking here. Some leaders are truly aware of the size of the change needed and are perhaps overwhelmed by the task. Others clearly haven’t grasped the complex nature of what is needed, and so continue to provide band-aids to a wound that is too deep and too serious to be healed with superficial surface measures.
From the companies I have researched in South Africa, the latter is the most likely scenario. The efforts that a few businesses are making towards balancing the genders can be summed up as follows:
- A lip-service commitment to gender balancing, resulting in a directive to HR to make inroads into balancing the work-force
- An over-arching opinion is adopted that meritocracy is the answer. Sooner or later, women will start to exhibit the skills and behaviours required and they will naturally rise into senior positions. In other words, the best way to treat a woman is to treat her just like a man. This approach pays no attention to the differences between the two genders – it simply repeats the status quo. Should a handful of women manage to rise up the ranks through their sheer skill and determination, they would still find themselves dealing with a male-driven culture that doesn’t take into consideration the tremendous benefits a business can derive from incorporating the qualities that the feminine brings. Over time, this is what leads to the revolving door syndrome as qualified women leave in their droves.
- The appointment of a junior person in a full-time capacity (usually a woman) whose job is to research the skills required versus those available (for example, if more women are needed in a technical division, so ascertain the availability of these skills amongst women and to strive to acquire them), and to urge various departments to give preference to women in the recruitment process. While this step is important and has certainly made a contribution, it is effective only at junior management to middle management levels. These levels have improved enormously throughout the world in recent years. However, no impact has been made on the General Management, Executive Committee and Board of Director levels. Those junior staff appointees are committed and striving, but have no impact on the true circles of influence in the company.
- The tasking of a senior woman in the organisation to head up the task of gender-balancing. Once again, this step falls into the ‘fixing the women’ category. What is being implied is, if a certain woman has succeeded, she’ll be able to help other women conform to the required behaviours that will help them get ahead. Often, no budget is given and the woman appointed is expected to make this transition happen in her own time. The whole premise is flawed in that it comes from the viewpoint that gender-balancing is a women’s issue and that women will start to succeed if they could just learn to modify their behaviours and act in a different way or with a different mind-set.
- A ‘women’s group’ is formed – inspirational speakers (women) are invited and the group may even get together on a monthly basis to discuss challenges etc. The fact that this tactic has never had any impact on improving the representation of women at senior levels is not surprising. Once again, the company approach is to isolate women and to treat gender-balancing as something that will come about once women ‘get-it’. Men tend to disregard these women’s groups, other than to deride them as ‘whine and wine clubs’. A functioning women’s network, on the other hand, that would hold senior management in a company to account is a different thing altogether from what exists in most businesses.
These approaches will never achieve a significant or sustainable increase in women at senior decision-making levels. For those CEOs and Boards of Directors who are sincere about trying to increase the representation by women at these levels, they are perhaps bemused as to why their efforts aren’t working. They don’t see that what is often happening in business can be likened to an all-male club opening its doors and expecting women to come in, adapt and thrive. I remember one of these men-only ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ because I used to visit my father’s club several years ago. Women were allowed to enter only through the side entrance, never the main door, and there were strict rules as to how we could behave and where we were allowed to walk. Of course, we had to be escorted at all times, only being left to our own devices when we needed to find a restroom. This was only 25 years ago, but it seems so silly and outdated now. All-male clubs are almost all gone now – and many died anyway, even when they opened their doors to women members in desperation.
The rules of society have changed, and yet we continue to try to repeat old patterns, wondering why we’re not getting different results. Businesses are still clinging to many archaic and prejudiced ways of operating, and continue to be surprised that women aren’t thriving! Patterns of decision-making, net-working, self-promotion, career advancement, training, production, product planning, target-setting and many other every day processes are almost always fashioned along the lines of the over-riding masculine culture. This has to change – not just because women have the skills that are needed in business but because society needs it. The masculine dominated pattern of profits before people and the planet has led us to the perilous state we’re now in. As one article recently stated : “A business and political world predominantly led by men has brought us to today’s global juncture.” This is not to paint all businesses with the same brush, but it’s clear that a change is needed. Recogising the scope of the change is essential before any real progress will be able to be made.