2008 – Why women mean business
A few weeks ago I was having some lunch not far from my
nearest Volvo dealer. A mobile phone message from the dealer
mentioned a special offer. Our family car is a Volvo and
we had been thinking about a change so I called at the showrooms,
partly out of curiosity, wondering if some startling new
technology was tracking my phone.
It turned out to be nothing more than a co-incidence, but
since I was there and since the salesman knew he had a potential
buyer, we began the ritual of looking and talking about
this and that latest model, culminating in a test drive
and some serious haggling.
The haggling was very close to a deal. It wouldn’t
have taken much to swing it. But the salesman seemed curiously
diffident, as if he thought he had done as much as was necessary.
I felt frustrated about the whole episode because I knew
that he could have done so much better. It’s something
I have noticed before, dealing with other car salesmen,
and I’m wondering if the problem is cultural, based,
as I’m sure it is, on the outdated assumption that
buying cars involves men selling to men.
This belief was confirmed when reading a new book, Why
Women Mean Business, by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison
Maitland who make a convincing case for more women in senior
The case is supported by sound research. Goldman Sachs,
for example, has suggested that gender equality in the labour
force could boost gross domestic product by as much as 9
per cent in the US, 13 per cent in the Eurozone and 16 per
cent in Japan.
Research published in 2004 by Catalyst, a US think tank,
found that the Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation
of women in their top management teams significantly outperformed
those with the lowest averages. Return on equity was 35
per cent higher while the total return to shareholders was
34 per cent.
Catalyst found the out-performance was even more impressive
when three years later it compared the financial results
of companies with the highest and lowest representation
of women on their boards. The authors quote many such studies
telling a similar story. There is no shortage of evidence
supporting the contention that the promotion of women in
to senior roles is good for business.
So why isn’t it happening? Why after a generation
of women has moved through careers, protected by equal opportunities
and sex discrimination legislation, are there still so few
women in the most senior jobs?
Why, when Indra Nooyi was appointed chief executive of
PepsiCo in 2006 could the Fortune 500 companies muster just
11 women chief executives? It is not only, as the authors
call it, a “yawning gender gap,” it is persistent,
troubling and wasteful. Women have become probably the greatest
neglected resource in business, both in their market potential
as consumers and in their productive potential as employees.
Indeed this could well be the reason that I am not driving
around in a new car. Had that sale been handled by a woman,
had my wife who also came along to see the car, been handled
differently, the outcome for the dealer might have been
Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Renault and Nissan, recognised
as much, speaking at the Women’s Forum in Deauville,
France, in 2006, when he said that women directly made or
influenced two-thirds of car purchases in Japan. Nissan
carried out surveys, showing that 80 per cent of women buyers
and half of men would like to see women sales executives
in car showrooms. Yet only one in 10 of the salespeople
in the Japanese car industry are women.
I would count myself among that male group. I am sick and
tired of badly-dressed salesmen, wearing oversized car coats
and poorly-knotted ties, spending too much time talking
and too little listening. Are they stupid enough to believe
that I am going to buy a car without my wife’s approval?
As the authors point out: “It is now fairly common
knowledge that the majority of car-buying decisions are
made or heavily influenced by women.” Yet so little
of this understanding has permeated the motor industry that
websites have been established in the US to handle women’s
car buying queries.
The reasons for women’s limited advancement in business
are many fold and complex as the book makes clear, but I
think this particular observation of the authors, which
applies across so many other industries, is getting to the
root of the problem. It is a fundamental weakness of business
models that were designed for a male-dominated world.
Yes there are other factors - including an under-representation
of women among MBA students. Many of these issues are associated
with the “male environment” of business that
tolerates long hours of working and management systems that
make a virtue of assertiveness while underplaying other
approaches that can be equally, if not more, effective depending
on the circumstances.
“Companies are learning that they need to change
how they market to women. They also need to change how they
manage them,” write the authors.
You would imagine, then, that more flexible working arrangements,
would have created more openings for women, yet, according
to Charles Russam who runs Russam GMS, an interim management
agency, relatively few have taken up this kind of work where
executives undertake short-term contracts, moving from one
“I have a database of 8,000 interims but only 10
per cent of them are women. I think, however, that more
women will be turning towards this kind of work in future,”
One problem may be a lack of familiarity with the concept
of interim management among women. Carole Harden, who has
undertaken an impressive string of interim assignments at
human resources director-level, believes that many women
do interim work but call it something else. “They
may work through word of mouth. I find it helps to make
sure your CV and employment details are listed with a number
of agencies,” she says.
Rachel Youngman who worked in a full time role as deputy
executive director of the International Bar Association,
left six years ago because she wanted greater flexibility
around her work. Today she combines interim roles with consultancy
“I wanted diversity, flexibility and opportunities
for self-expression, all the things you don’t always
get in full time employment. In the interim role I feel
I’m in the driving seat. I can put my foot on the
accelerator and ease off as I choose. But it’s very
much a career and it’s hard work,” she says.
In spite of such alternatives, thousands of successful
women continue to leave the workforce in mid-career and
the number may be increasing according to a recent study
by PriceWaterhousecoopers that reported a sharp fall in
the number of senior women managers in the FTSE 350 over
the last five years.
The real issue, I believe, is not that women need to change
but that business needs to change. Senior careers for women
should not be about women fitting the demands of the job,
but about work changing to meet the needs of women. As the
book suggests, we need a revolution in thinking. It could
start on the sales floor.
Why Women Mean Business, Understanding the Emergence
of Our Next Economic Revolution, by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox
and Alison Maitland, is published by Jossey-Bass, price
See also: How
Women Can Fill The Talent Gap