It seems that every time I pick up a newspaper, click on a link or read a blog there something to be read about women and boards. And I’m getting bored. Now this may seem a little hypocritical coming from someone like me, as I have been very vocal over the years in advocating for women in their pursuit of senior roles and do indeed write about it myself. Despite what you might be thinking, my position actually remains unchanged. There is a wealth of senior female talent which organisations and global economies fail to tap into, in my view to their detriment. So those initiatives should clearly continue.
However, when you look at the overall scheme of things, whether applied to men or women, organisations are pyramids and there are very few open positions at the top – for anyone at all. But sometimes it is important not to miss the core issue. The primary danger zone for women professionally, lies much further downstream where the numbers are much higher . The real support and mentoring that women need, is in those more junior, hazy, grey areas, 7-12 years into their careers. It’s about the maths.
Whichever statistics we use, the numbers don’t look good. 60% of European women are graduates and yet the number occupying senior positions hovers depressingly around 14% depending on the country being cited, and if you venture into Germany, a grim 3%. Somewhere in between C-Suite and entry-level, the corporate drop- out rate soars and highly qualified women, find themselves making critical career decisions, very often without any long-term strategy. They leave, or give in and accept their fates consigned to the margins of the organogram. Very often they experience the “Mommy Penalty” earning lower salaries than their male counterparts. Women with MBAs are one of the hardest hit demographics. They find themselves in the double bind of having to negotiate their role and manage expectations, not just in the workplace, but also within their own relationship and families.
The new dad
Interestingly there is now some research which suggests that change is perhaps on the horizon, as a result of shifting expectations from men as well. A Fatherhood Study carried out by Boston College tells us “According to a study by the National Study of the Changing Workforce, for the first time since 1992, young women and young men do not differ in terms of their desire for jobs with greater responsibility (Galinsky, Aumann, & Bond, 2008). As a result, young women may be less prone to be the “accommodating spouse” in two-career couples, placing their career aspirations second to that of their male spouses”.
The study suggests that men also have different expectations. “Their wives are likely to be at least as well if not better educated, just as ambitious as they are, and make more money than they do. More importantly, these men feel that being a father is not about being a hands-off economic provider“
It would seem that although the expectations of both men and women are changing, organisations (perhaps still run by Baby Boomers, raised in father centric households) are not adapting fast enough to the cultural shifts in the societies around them. Developing economies need not just an increased birth rate vital to support a rapidly aging population, but for women to actively contribute to economic growth, not when they are older, but now, today. The economy of the euro zone for example has been predicted to grow 16 per cent if women were in formal employment as much as men.
Additionally, a new generation of both men and women are looking for better work/life balance and no longer sees the default leadership setting as male and the female setting as “atypical”. So perhaps the business model for corporate culture, which not just creates a gender divide but actually relies on it, needs to be re-examined rather than emulated.
The most demanding issue is not only about getting women onto boards, surely a symptom and result of what is happening lower down the scale, it’s also about combining organisational imperatives with the needs of both men and women in the early stages of their career, as they cope with the natural demands life makes on them.
It’s time to refocus and reframe.
This post first appeared in Jump Blog in September 2011. Check out details of the 2012 Forum on April 26th in Brussels where I’m running a fun and informative workshop “What’s a USP and how does someone like me get one? ” Hope to see you there!