Saturday, March 10, 2007

Why are women quitting the boardrooms?

According to an article in the Guardian last Thursday research by PriceWaterhouse Cooper shows a staggering 40% fall in the number of women in senior executive posts in the FTSE 350. Meanwhile Management Today reports that according to Grant Thornton just 64% of UK companies employ female senior executives compared to 91% in China and 97% in the Philippines. Depressing news, yet hardly surprising - The recent Sex and Power Report from the Equal Opportunities Commission reported similar challenges highlighting the facts that women comprise just 10% of FTSE 100 directors and less than 20% of MPs.

But the problem for me is that when most of these reports ask WHY this is happening, they miss the real cause. Are child care costs really going to be an issue for an ambitious woman earning £100,000 a year, or flexibility of working hours. Actually yes - but they contribute to the real problem - they are symptoms of the problem - not the problem itself.

I have a distinct advantage when it comes to understanding differences in men and women - because I have been both genders. I had to change my behaviour to fit in with the way women behave so that I am accepted as a woman, and in making those changes I began to observe behaviours that were not learned, they were natural. In fact during my early life I had had to suppress natural female behaviours in order to be accepted as a man and not be seen as 'gay.'

The book that threw most light on this was Deborah Tannen's excellent Talking from Nine to Five (Click here for the US Book) In her book she highlighted the way that men tend to one up each other, a game of constant competition - and of course they organise business the same way into hierarchies than enable them to position themselves against each other as a measure of relative success. When I reached a senior management position I was horrified to discover just how ruthlessly competitive it is. The company car becomes a symbol of importance as does the size of office, expense account, number of reporting staff, and especially share options. Position is more important than performance because most of these ambitious men learn how to benefit from and take advantage of other peoples performance - especially women who have had to fight their way into top jobs by constantly demonstrating performance excellence.

How well you can bluff is far more important at the top - but even more deadly for women is that one of the ways that men often use to get "one up" is to put someone else down. I found myself having to be on guard all the time in case a project did not succeed because everyone else involved was positioning themselves to make it look as if the failure was someone else's fault. The person least prepared for that often took the fall and time and time again I saw women had not been prepared for it.

Competitive men spend time safeguarding themselves or worse if a woman is perceived a competition, which she often is because she is more talented, they will take actions to make sure that she is seen to fail. I have a trans friend who is a motor racing driver and she tells me that when there is a women racing many of the drivers will all try to take her off the track - being beaten by a woman is simply not OK.

It's not all men that act in this way - but it only needs to be one or two to cause a real problem. A woman either has to play the competitive game or constantly guard against it. Who wants to spend their life doing that? I certainly didn't. I felt like a woman disguised as a man in those days and eventually I did the only sane thing - I got out and started my own business. Guess what all those women who have disappeared from the top jobs have done?

According to the Sex and Power Report - 41.5% of SME businesses are now owned jointly or solely by a woman - in the US over 50% of businesses are owned by women. Women can abandon hierarchies in favour of a flatter more networked structure when they can be at the Heart of the business not at the top of it. Women introduce equal opportunities policies, childcare, flexible hours, and a focus on work life balance. More importantly women tend to build companies that are founded on good relationships with customers not on share options and company cars.

I am not sure if the top British companies will ever really change while they are wedded to the hierarchies of power with the huge bonuses and other outward symbols of success paid to those at the top which encourages the ruthless competition. There are some women who thrive in that atmosphere - but in my experience most will reach senior management, experience what it is really like, and start planning their own business - eventually starving top businesses of the talent they need to survive. So if you start to see FTSE 350 companies being taken over or collapsing you will know why.

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