Taken from the forthcoming spring ‘e-Organisations and People’ journal – For more information and to purchase a copy look here. This article asks whether the time is finally right for women to take on leadership roles without needing to give up their core values, needs and behaviours. Evidence is put forward showing how essential it is to include women in leadership roles if we want to attain a sustainable future. Lasy Lawless explores what might prevent that from happening. She considers how much of this problem is self imposed and how much of it relates to gender politics in the workplace. She asks each reader to do one thing to accelerate change.Keywords: Inequality, women in leadership, gender, prejudice, diversity and sustainability
My discovery of gender prejudice
I grew up on a farm in a large family in Ireland. There was an equal number of boys and girls in my family. This description probably conjures up a stereotypical image of simple country folk following strict catholic doctrines, women in the kitchen supporting men in the fields. But that’s not what it was like. My mother was the first female to study law at Cork University. She experienced severe prejudice from male lecturers, who assumed she chose the subject to be the only female amongst men so that she could flirt with them.Despite being awarded a first class degree, she never got to work as a lawyer. In those days the economic policy to address unemployment was that women gave up work when they got married. Those women who did not go on to have children simply struggled to contribute and to live full lives. This background set the scene for my upbringing because in my home we never distinguished between male and female roles along traditional lines. Boys cooked and girls worked on the farm – if that suited our strengths, rather than tasks that were assigned based on our gender. So natural was this to me that it wasn’t until I actually entered the workforce in 1980 that I discovered gender prejudice and I found it both shocking and stupefying. It simply made no sense to me.
Slowly it dawned on me that although women were a core part of the workforce, they rarely ran companies, sat on boards or shared equally in rewards. Throughout my twenties I watched and learned just how agonisingly slowly systems of power change, irrespective of whether they are effective or satisfying. I have oscillated between irritation with the system, rage at men and frustration with women themselves, each playing a contributory role in ensuring that change cannot be immediate. However, in the last ten years I think I can see the roots of a sea change. I hope that when we look back at the noughties we will all be as shocked and stupefied as I was in the 1980s.
Conscious capitalism for gender equality?
And I believe that conscious capitalism is the movement that captures the attitudes and values that will make it possible for women to take their rightful place as equals in the business world. I believe that gender equality requires three major shifts: a new economic structure, the buy-in of men and women being more assertive. Conscious capitalism is that system. I will try to address the other two conditions later in the article.Conscious Capitalism by Mackey, Sisodia and George (2013) identifies some key qualities of the conscious leader.’Conscious leaders abundantly display many of the qualities we most admire in exemplary human beings. They usually find great joy and beauty in their work, and in the opportunity to serve, lead, and help shape a better future. Since they are living their calling, they are authentic individuals who are eager to share their passion with others. They are very dedicated to their work, which recharges and energises them instead of draining them. Conscious leaders commonly have high analytical, emotional, spiritual and systems intelligence. They also have an orientation toward servant leadership, high integrity and a great capacity for love and care. (Mackey, Sisodia & George 2013, p183). While so many of these qualities are gender neutral, others (love, care, emotional intelligence, sharing passion, servant leadership and helping shape a better future) are attributes frequently associated with women. They might even be described as nurturing or maternal characteristics.
Because of the roles traditionally played by women – supporting partners, enabling children towards independence and reaching their potential, running households and finances, it could be said that women have been in training for leadership positions for thousands of years. ‘Conscious business’ is a way to describe organisations that operate within a conscious capitalist structure. Conscious businesses positively encourage women to embrace leadership roles outside of the home, but this is only the structure. For real change to occur we need women to step into the roles and demonstrate our effectiveness in leading.
So what are the issues that women will have to address if they choose to step into leadership roles? I think they fall into two main categories – things that women need to do for themselves, and things that men need to support us with. Equality for women is happening slowly, but for change to happen quickly both genders need to collaborate. The greatest hurdle is to raise general awareness of the challenges and of the amazing opportunity if we address the issues. We need to take the conversations out from the feminists and futurists to every layperson. The major challenges we face are: women’s preference for collaboration over competition; scepticism about how their accomplishments will be reported by journalists/men; women’s fear of being humiliated by being judged on how they look rather on their accomplishments; young girls low aspirations based on their lack of belief that they will succeed; and ignorance by female graduates of the benefits of working in SMEs rather than in corporate cultures.
Collaboration vs competition
It would be easy to idealise women and to pretend that they completely avoid conflict or competition. They don’t. But research shows that there are significant gender differences in frequency when entering into ‘winner-takes-all’ types of competition, and yet no significant gender gap in other types of competition. Women are averse to entering competitive forums that result in a single winner walking away with the prize and the kudos, but women are equally competitive where the agenda results in rewards for the majority (Niederle, M., & Vesterlund, L. 2007). Conscious leaders believe that the most successful and sustainable results come from including the interests of all stakeholders – employees, investors, suppliers etc rather than simply focusing on shareholders short term returns. Conscious businesses need leaders who favour collaborative, empowering attitudes rather than ‘shareholders-take-all’ behaviours, and women compete as frequently and as successfully when these conditions exist.
Respect for the long-sightedness of how women compete needs to be applauded, rather than their aversion for winner-takes-all outcomes to be portrayed as a weakness. After all, we have seen the outcome of pure capitalist attitudes – the majority lose while the minority continue on in a self-serving manner. I ran a workshop this week for “Women in Leadership” that included an hour of dialogue with three significant female leaders. I was struck by their passion to share success and power, which was reflected in these three responses: “In the Green Party we spent a long time considering how to do leadership so that it was not something that we did to people, but something that we do with them.” Caroline Lucas (First Green MP). “When I got above the glass ceiling I threw the ladder down so that other women could climb it.” Polly Toynbee (Journalist for The Guardian). “I have never knowingly turned down any conversation with anyone who wanted to talk about their career development.” Penny Thompson CBE (CEO of Brighton & Hove Council). These responses were not constructed to gain PR advantage. They were authentic responses embedded in answers to various questions on “Women In Leadership.” It demonstrates their natural preference for “power with” as opposed to “power over”.
Scepticism about the press
I am currently working with an amazing female MD running a successful international business. The company is a conscious business moving towards employee ownership. A year ago I invited her to speak about the company’s culture at a business event but she found the idea horrifying. Besides a fear of public speaking, which is a common fear for both genders, she just didn’t trust the media to get that the success of the company and its culture was down to her team and not to her alone. She was not going to risk her team feeling undervalued. Since then I have introduced her to books and articles on conscious capitalism and very, very gradually she is becoming hopeful that there is a growing appetite for change in how business is done. We need to get more information about conscious business out to women so that they know there is a system that absolutely relies on the feminisation of business. I believe that they will take the risks necessary to step out of the shadows if they have faith that something is changing.Caroline Lucas resigned as formal leader of the Green Party after four years because she “had benefited so much from the position and she wanted to pass on that opportunity to someone else in the party”. She told us that the press could not accept this explanation and so instead they were creating stories about an affair or her mental health. This is the type of personal assault and misinterpretation that women risk when we openly offer an alternative explanation for our motives than the winner-takes-all model.
Fear of humiliation regarding personal appearances
Women fear the limelight of greatness because they risk being judged on their appearances rather than on their accomplishments. 68% of girls across all groups agree with the statement “ability”. At the workshop that I mentioned earlier, Penny Thompson told us that when a picture of her appeared in the paper after her appointment and announcing her amazing prior achievements she had to tolerate comments on her appearance such as suggesting she “use her huge salary to do something with her hair”. The most atrocious recent example of what women have to endure is captured here by the Financial Times about the first female prime minister of Australia: “Few politicians in a western democracy have endured such personal abuse as Gillard, whose three-year term as prime minister ended in June amid a welter of recrimination about the nature of Australian society and its treatment of women in top jobs”. (Parker, 2013)
But the Welsh-born lawyer did not go down without a fight. Gillard reflected on her role as the country’s first female prime minister: “I’ve been a little bit bemused by those colleagues in the newspapers who have admitted that I have suffered more pressure as a result of my gender than other PMs in the past but then concluded it had zero effect on my political position or the political position of the Labor party.” With tears in her eyes, she talked about what her term as prime minister might mean for other female leaders: “What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that, and the woman after that, and I’m proud of that”. While this type of attack didn’t stop Penny Thompson or Julia Gillard from embracing leadership roles, not all women are resilient or brave enough to survive it. Just as it is not every man who is brave enough to be a Nelson Mandela or Ghandi. It takes a huge amount of self belief and faith in the underlying higher values for a person to put themselves consciously in these positions. What we really need is the support of men, the press and all powerful thinking individuals everywhere to make this kind of ignorant behaviour a thing to be ashamed of.
Young girls’ aspirations
Women lack self belief in their ability to succeed in business. Girls across every level of affluence are almost 10% less likely to believe they could start their own business than boys of a similar level of wealth. (Click for link to survey results.) For me, this is the most depressing piece of research available. When I compare this perception to how I described my beautifully, naive beliefs in my teens it feels tragic. We need more female role models in all walks of life. Change of this type has to begin at home. So if you are reading this article, make one little change – point people towards Guardian Women, attend an event to support women in leadership (there are loads of them), vote for female leaders, challenge the status quo in companies.
Corporate careers vs SME offers
Women do better in SMEs, and SMEs do better because of women. The number of women on FTSE 100 boards has risen from 15% in 2012, to 17.3% in 2013 (Dr Sealy, 2013 – Link). Career breaks, bias and having babies certainly account for some of the shortfall but it cannot account for all of it and gender prejudice must account for at least some of it. In contrast, recent research also found that 80 percent of family owned businesses are more gender balanced, having at least one female director and that this diversity meant that the companies were less likely to fail than companies with less diversity (Myers, 2013 – Link). The study highlighted the fact that family-orientated goals such as preserving unity, wealth and providing employment for family members may also contribute to their survival. The team analysed data of over 700,000 medium and large private family and non-family firms with an annual sales turnover of at least £6.5 million, a balance sheet total of at least £3.26 million and at least 50 employees. This information is available to corporate boards but because they are so entrenched in traditional thinking and averse to taking risks they often appoint women as a token gesture and to appeal to corporate social measures rather than in the full understanding that they need to do this for their own survival. We need this kind of thinking and behaviour to change.
I think it is significant that although conscious business culture is only recently emerging as a solution to addressing the pitfalls of capitalism, and that democratic management and empowerment are being touted as the way to run successful businesses, it was an exceptional female political scientist – Mary Parker Follet – who wrote about it almost a century ago. Her work was largely ignored by business writers, all men, until recently. “Follet was profoundly interested in society and how one could attain personal fulfilment while striving at the same time to create the well-ordered and just society. The answer, she concluded, lay in democratic governance, an abiding belief that was to inform all her activities and become the goal that inspired her for the rest of her life”. (?Graham 2003, p: ?) In ‘Prophet of Management’ (2003), Pauline Graham explores the reasons that she was so ignored by her peers – was it a sign of the times or simply because she was a woman? Like my mother, Caroline Lucas, Polly Toynbee, Penny Thompson and the female MD mentioned earlier,
Mary Parker Follet continued to say what was true for her despite being ignored or misinterpreted by her male peers. It is remarkable how ahead of her times she was, and it is testimony to her message that approaching 60, and without any experience in the business world, she became a management thinker eagerly sought after by the business communities of both the United States and England. Those business leaders, mostly men, were also ahead of their time.
Conscious business is a successful, sustainable way of addressing the failure of pure capitalism. Conscious leaders require additional qualities that have been traditionally described as feminine. Companies that have at least one female director significantly reduce the risk of business failure and conscious business culture was originally captured in the writings of a woman over 100 years ago. So all of this bodes well for women who are ready to aim for leadership roles. And having a more balanced mix of the genders across business leadership roles would appear to lead to more sustainable success for everyone. It would seem that the time is ripe for women to share more equally in leading the world towards a better way to do business. It is now up to women to embrace the moment and aim for greatness, for the good of everyone, rather than fearing the comments of small minded individuals. It is also up to men to support women in the journey because it has finally become clear and evidenced based that this is the only intelligent choice for us all.
- Childwise Monitor Report 2012 – Girls attitude survey 2012 Graham, P. (Ed.). (2003).
- Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management. Beard Books.
- Mackey, J., Sisodia, R., & George, B. (2013). Conscious capitalism: Liberating the heroic spirit of business. Harvard Business Press.
- Myers, M (2013). Big business could learn survival lessons from family businesses says new report: Imperial College London 22 May 2013 –http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_22-5-2013-12-0-36
- Niederle, M., & Vesterlund, L. (2007). Do women shy away from competition? Do men compete too much? The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122(3), 1067-1101
- Parker, G (2013) Julia Gillard: Financial Times – 12 December 2013
- Sealy, R. and Vinnicombe, S. (2013) The Female FTSE board report 2013: False Dawn of Progress for Women on Boards?, Cranfield: Cranfield University School of Management.
About the author
Lasy Lawless is passionate about change and transformation. She likes to combine this with pragmatism, strategy and business focus. Her approach is person-centred – which means, she expects and supports others to take their own, full responsibility.As a trained accountant, Lasy worked for Big Finish – a conglomerate of TV and film post production companies – at a time when that world was being radically changed by digital technology. As Group FD, after 10 years sitting in over a dozen boardrooms devising strategy, she realised that the old ways of doing things were finished. Traditional power structures no longer delivered.That’s, at least in part, why she re-trained as a psychotherapist. Lasy believes that understanding what motivates people, and how to create strong challenging relationships at all levels, is the single most critical success factor for any business. Lasy is one of the founding partners, with Pete Burden and Jamie Pyper of Conscious Business People, a consultancy a business consultancy helping leaders build 21st century business cultures. She can be contacted via http://www.linkedin.com/in/lasylawless.