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Donkin on Work - Women

March 2005 - Women and leadership

Why do so few women get to the top of big companies? The question has been asked so frequently without any satisfactory answer that it is tempting to conclude that this is simply the way things work out in our system of market capitalism.

It was encouraging therefore to discover last week that the question is alive and kicking among some of the world’s most influential women. But the debate has taken a subtle twist away from what was previously characterised as a battle of the sexes.

There was a refreshing absence of militancy among speakers at a 1,000-strong conference on women in leadership hosted by Zayed University in Dubai.
Apart from an occasional mention of glass ceilings and the odd nod towards more hard-line feminist beliefs, most of the debate was concentrated on the need for organisational change to accommodate the leadership-styles of women.

The tone was established from the outset by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and director general of the World Health Organisation, who called for a reshaping of employment systems that expected successful people to spend the vast majority of their waking hours at work.

Ms Bruntland re-opened the controversy over remarks made in January by Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, who told an economics conference that the under-representation of women scientists at top universities could stem in part from “innate" differences between men and women. His remarks caused uproar among women academics.

What Mr Summers had been right about, she said, was the 80-hour weeks demanded of those who reached the top of their professions. “Women react by delivering their commitment to work those 80-hour weeks. But by trying to feed the current system they are missing the opportunity to reshape it,” she said.

“We need to reshape our societies to make room for both women and men to share responsibilities in family life.”

Ms Bruntland was instrumental in driving through significant reforms in the Norwegian employment and political systems that most recently have included a requirement for large company boards to have a 40 per cent composition of women.

Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada, urged a fundamental re-think of the contextual relationship between men and women in society. Existing interactions between the sexes, she pointed out, had been established over generations so that departures from familiar patterns tended to make people feel uncomfortable. “This explains why women do not always support other women in leadership roles,” she said.

She called these established behaviours “gender schemas”, adopting the Greek word, schema for pattern or framework. “This is not a fight between men and women but a fight against gender schemas that communicate an inaccurate view of what men and women are capable of doing and therefore get in the way,” she said.

The power of such perceptions, she said, was illustrated by a Harvard University study that looked at a sample group of men and women of the same average height. When people were asked to guess their heights, the men were judged to be, on average, some three and a half inches taller than the women.

“Universally men are judged to be taller than women,” she said. “We are so used to expecting this that we see it even when it doesn’t exist.”

In a second experiment musicians auditioning for an orchestra were asked to perform behind a screen so that selectors judged their performance solely on their musical ability. It was found that orchestras put together in this way had 25 per cent more women members than those where the gender of the player was known by the recruiters.

Traditionally among musicians there is a schema that women musicians have a smaller technique. If you think you are going to hear a smaller technique then this is what you hear. Unfortunately there are very few jobs you can audition for from behind a screen,” said Ms Campbell.

Her comments raise some serious issues about gender and other forms of bias that is applied unwittingly by recruiters. Most recruiters would stress the importance of appearance among candidates because they understand its significance without challenging the underlying bias that is applied as soon as someone enters a room.

Further evidence of such bias emerged later in the conference that included a large contingent of Emirati women students, some of whom were veiled because of their religious beliefs. Lecturers I spoke with admitted that the wearing of veils among students had caused some difficulties, partly practical in identification and partly due to cultural discomfort among western faculty members.

It is as if the veil creates a feeling of distrust – that something more than a woman’s appearance is being concealed. Most of the students choose to wear headscarves and the abaya, a full-length black robe usually worn over jeans and tee-shirts. But even some of those who covered themselves admitted doubts about wearing the veil even though they respected friends who dressed this way.

“Some have admitted hiding behind the veil to look at boys,” said one lecturer. But that seems understandable in a teenage girl. The most troubling aspect of these conversations was the strength of emotions raised by the act of covering.

Men understand the principles of veiling only too well since they learn to veil their emotions from an early age. What is so different between keeping a stiff upper lip and covering your face with a cloth? The answer is that veiled emotions among men are fulfilling cultural expectations whereas the veiled woman arouses suspicion in many western minds. It wasn’t always the case. When Queen Victoria took to a veil in mourning for Prince Albert it was an accepted custom of the time.

The students stressed the religious importance of their dress code but it was clear, also, that Emirati women are drawing some intellectual power from their religion that many are using to establish equal status with men. There is a long way to go. Job advertisements in Emirates-based newspapers often still discriminate between the sexes. Those seeking secretaries, for example, will typically ask for a woman.

On the other hand, the subordination of girls within muslim families has forced them to improve themselves educationally. In some of the wealthier Arab families this phenomenon, contrasted with the widespread fecklessness of more privileged sons, has led to increasing numbers of daughters inheriting their parent’s wealth or at least playing a more significant role in the family business. The muslim work ethic is embodied in the hearts and minds of women.

Returning to the original question it may be that a more inclusive society needs to reframe its attitudes to leadership. The top is always perceived as a pinnacle. Why can we not view it differently, as a plateau, for example? In career terms the plateau is viewed as not quite there, yet a plateau is still a peak and it is one that can accommodate a variety of people and views.

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©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved