…but not too much to succeed in the boardroom
Women should possess a combination of feminine and masculine skills and attributes to counter gender imbalance in the higher echelons of corporate power. Dr Patricia Lewis, Reader in Management at Kent Business School, explains why to Trevor Sturgess.
The glass ceiling has proved well nigh impenetrable to many talented businesswomen. While a handful run FTSE companies, numbers are pitifully few, despite numerous reviews, campaigns and debates. Quotas are proposed, but some experts like Dr Patricia Lewis do not believe they are the best way to address the gender imbalance.
Last year, she gave a riveting talk about workplace gender issues and feminine leadership to members of the Institute of Directors Kent. The Reader in Management at Kent Business School is a specialist in this challenging area of corporate life.
There is discrimination, she says, but it’s less to do with deliberate policy and prejudice than centuriesold social and cultural “norms.” “For hundreds of years, there has been a binary divide between the masculine and feminine and the masculine has been more valued. This can be seen in cultures where boys are seen as more important than girls.”
She cites an article in a Harvard Business Review of 1965 posing the question: “Are women executives human?”
“It was assumed that only men had the skills, attributes, spirit and demeanour to make the rough and tough decisions in business,” she says. “Women were seen as too emotional, too irrational, to make them.”
“In 1965, it was thought that only the very exceptional woman, who wasn’t like a normal woman, could make it in management.” In the 1990s, Tom Peters took a different line, saying that good managers needed collaborative, coaching, nurturing and “group hug” skills. Women were perceived as having these in abundance. Peters recognised the value of feminine behaviours and practices for competitive advantage, a view highlighted by Judy Rosener in a 1990 Harvard Business Review article “Ways Women Lead” about the importance of feminine leadership for 21st Century business.
It was one of the first times that female traits were identified as valuable in business leadership. Yet for women to succeed, they also need masculine skills. “Leadership, according to contemporary research, is a combination of masculine and feminine behaviours.”
However, this combination does not automatically bring more success for women because the co-existence of masculine and feminine behaviours in leadership is not one of equals. Rather, a power relationship still exists between the masculine and feminine, with men who are now encouraged to bring out their feminine side gaining more from adopting feminine behaviours when leading.
Dr Lewis contrasts the plaudits men receive for “feminine skills” – concern for employees and their welfare, for example – with criticism of women for being “too masculine.”
Additionally, when women do enact feminine behaviours when leading, this is not interpreted as skills business leadership (in contrast to men) but rather is expected of them as a “natural” display of femaleness. She cites contemporary examples of how cultural – or subliminal – norms persist.
Why, she asks, was Harriet Green, former chief executive of the Thomas Cook travel business, ”let go” after just two years for doing a “fantastic job” turning around the company and presiding over a share price jump? Was it because she was perceived as “too sharp, too masculine, too in your face?” Yet Apple’s Steve Jobs was applauded for similar characteristics.
She contrasts Green’s fate with that of Marc Bolland, former chief executive of Marks & Spencer, who presided over a falling share price and declining market share in clothing, yet remained in post for six years?
Women need to understand these cultural norms, she says, if they are to get on. “If you’re too masculine, it doesn’t go down well. But women can’t leave their femininity behind. The double whammy is they have to do the masculine along with the feminine, yet can be criticised for being overly masculine or not feminine enough.”
Powerful women in the City combine work with having children, in effect, to emphasise their femininity.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (the “Iron Lady”) did masculine but was criticised for it, taunted for “hand-bagging.” Kenneth Clarke called Theresa May a “bloody difficult woman.” Would he have said that of a man? Karren Brady of The Apprentice is criticised for being too harsh (but fair) – code for not being feminine enough when managing.
Citing Sheryl Sandberg, the high-powered proponent of blended female work – reading emails, taking children to school, cooking dinner – Dr Lewis says it’s an on-going challenge for women to “calibrate the feminine and masculine”.
“When men engage in feminine leadership behaviours it’s perceived as skilful business practice, something they get a dividend for. If women enact masculine leadership behaviours, they don’t. What’s acceptable in a man is not acceptable in a woman.”
Dr Lewis is cautious about the ability of quotas to bring about significant gender balance in the boardroom because they don’t deal with cultural norms and potentially could negatively compound the current situation.
Away from corporate life, Dr Lewis observes that while “Mumpreneurs” have become more prominent, women only account for about a quarter of all start-ups.
Dr Lewis urges employers to do more to accommodate female leaders. They should not turn women down at interview because they may potentially leave to have a baby – they will likely return while an individual (male or female) who takes up a job opportunity in another organisation will definitely not. If people assume it’s a bigger risk to employ a woman, blame cultural norms. Employers should have greater awareness of these norms and adapt their business practices to overcome them.
Technology enables a female leader to keep in regular touch with the workplace while on maternity leave or when dealing with family business.
Dr Lewis has this message for businesswomen. “Do not under-estimate gender norms but don’t think you cannot deal with them. Instead, consider how you can develop cultural skills to manage them. Such skills will help in recognising cultural resources and cultural constraints around gender while also gaining cultural awareness of this aspect of managing and leading.
She adds: “Skilled use and understanding of gender norms will enable women in leadership to better calibrate their displays of masculine and feminine behaviours.”
IoD Kent is tailoring more services to women members in 2017 by working closely with Sue Nelson, founder of Breakthrough Funding, and Deborah Turner, of You Image Consultancy.
Sue’s business helps growing firms apply for research and development tax credits, while Deborah’s promises to make “your personal image truly reflect your skills and talents.”