Books: Sauce for goose and gander

In pondering the persistent failure of women to scale the corporate tree, this book argues that firms need to offer flexibility to both sexes.

by Amanda Wallis, an MD at US Trust, Bank of America Private WealthManagement
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As we progresses through life, we encounter big questions. Most, we find, are answered with time and experience. 'Is there a Father Christmas?' is solved at an early age; how an aeroplane flies is answered a little later. But in our business world today one big unanswered question persists: 'Why are there so few women in powerful positions in corporate life?'

A lot of attention has been paid to the subject in recent years and many bright minds are working on it - yet it remains a question with no clear answer. The authors of this book, consultant Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and journalist Alison Maitland, have considerable experience advising on the changes taking place in the labour force and have spent much time examining why these have not been reflected in the executive suite and beyond. In Why Women Mean Business, they take an unusual angle by analysing gender as a business issue, not a women issue.

This is an ambitious book, spanning a wide range of topics related to women in business and, as such, is an excellent primer for anyone interested in this area. It's also well researched and contains a useful bibliography. Topics range from the economic power of women as consumers, the answer to the talent shortage that women represent, what makes women different from men in leadership styles, to why traditional approaches to addressing gender disparity have failed. It also examines the key phases of female career cycles and gives specific advice to companies on the 'seven steps to successful implementation' of a gender initiative.

Inevitably in a book of such breadth, many of its themes could constitute a book in themselves. The issue of over-achievement of girls versus boys in school, for example, is a topic of huge interest and with significant ramifications. The difference in the leadership styles of women is also intriguing - especially in light of recent research published by the Lehman School for Women in Business, which concluded that teams made up of exactly 50% men and 50% women are the most innovative.

On the other hand, the book's breadth sometimes leads the authors to make broad generalisations that hide the fact that women can be as diverse as a group as they may be similar. For example, I'm not sure that the key phases of female career cycles are truly made up of 1, Ambition; then 2, Culture Shock; and then 3, Self-affirmation. And I was disappointed in the generalisation that the current group of senior politicians - Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and Segolene Royal - represent a new type of female leader compared to the generation of Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. Politics aside, I find it curious that little attention is paid to the fact that Thatcher managed to be a wife and mother and was very much a woman. A male acquaintance who worked for her recalls that the first thing she did when he arrived at her home (before her Downing Street days) was to ask whether he'd had breakfast. Invariably the answer was no, at which point she proceeded to make him a cooked breakfast.

But generalisations are probably inevitable and I found the authors' conclusions very relevant. They argue that today's workforce is changing rapidly and that firms need new workplace models if they are to attract and retain the best workers of today - men or women.

Allowing fathers, for example, the flexibility to spend more time with their children, allowing older workers to stay on in a more flexible capacity to harness their considerable experience, or appealing to 'a younger generation ... often less willing to put its professional life on a pinnacle of total devotion' - are all examples of people who 'would like a new deal too'. And that includes long-serving male employees, new entrants and mid-career executives.

This conclusion dovetails with a position I have long maintained: that the suppositions generally made about women - that they are more entrepreneurial than men, that they leave corporate life because they don't like the politics, that they want more flexibility in their workplace environment - are actually true of men too.

Men have been toiling in the corporate world for hundreds of years and are culturally programmed to accept some of the drawbacks of company life that women reject. Being newer to the environment, women are readier to reject what they don't like. By embracing this concept in their book, Wittenberg-Cox and Maitland have opened new ground. They may not have laid to rest the question of why there are not more women in executive positions, but they have added a useful dimension to the debate.

Why Women Mean Business: Understanding the emergence of our next economic revolution; Alison Maitland & Avivah Wittenberg-Cox; Wiley £16.99.

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