A lesser-spotted breed

Once, women were not welcome at the party; now they toss the invitation away.

by Richard Reeves, director of Intelligence Agency, an ideasconsultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the Confederation of British Industry earlier this year sent senior members and friends a tasteful pair of earrings engraved with the organisation's logo. Responding to complaints from a humourless handful of men that the commemorative gift was sexist, the organisation pointed out that in the 21st century, men often wear earrings too - and that the gift was therefore gender-neutral.

No, of course they didn't. In fact the employers' body sent out customised cuff-links. (Look out for them at CBI seminars on 'equal opportunities for women in the workplace'.) A more reasonable explanation for this apparently trivial slight would have been that the overwhelming majority of recipients are in fact men - which is the real problem.

After decades of campaigning, legislation, networking and education, women are still the lesser-spotted breed of Britain's boardrooms. The pay gap between the sexes has stopped closing. And in many public services the position is even worse: we have had female PMs and FTSE-100 CEOs (although, admittedly, only one of each), but we'll have to wait a while for our first woman chief constable.

The drive of women into senior positions was boosted in the 1970s by laws demanding equal pay, in the '80s by dramatic improvements in the educational attainment of young women, and in the '90s by vigorous networking followed by substantial improvements in rights to maternity and parental leave. Now, though, the drive has stalled. So the tough job of changing British organisations from the inside out has to start.

The story of gender inequality at work has been one of competing metaphors.

On the one side is the pipeline theory, based on the idea that once there are enough women in the system, eventually they will pop out at the top.

The alternative view is the ceiling theory, founded on the belief that although women can indeed succeed up to a certain point, further progress is blocked by impenetrable Men Only signs.

There is some evidence for both views. It's true that there are precious few women directors, but, according to the pipelinists, this is because there have not been enough women coming through the management ranks.

Now, though, four out of 10 management jobs are filled by women: so watch this space. There may be something to this - although women can be forgiven for feeling that this pipeline makes the one carrying oil across Siberia look like a tiddler.

On the other hand, there continues to be a sharp fall in the proportion of women between the management and director levels of most organisations.

This suggests the existence of a glass ceiling for women. Of course there are always a few women who buck the system. But for every Rimmington, Horlick or Scardino there are at least a hundred equally talented women languishing in the middle ranks.

It is not that organisations are generally Neolithic about gender: as women become equally if not better educated, most are desperate to retain female talent. But many talented young women look at the deal represented by senior organisational roles and justifiably say no. Many of them set up businesses of their own. Or they simply tread water, refusing to jump onto the fast track because of the price the race extracts along the way.

The new generation of brilliant women do not see gaining organisational success as a vital contribution to the feminist revolution. They are too busy having a life. And this indicates a profound shift in the campaign to increase female representation at the top. It used to be that they were not welcome at the party; now they are tossing the invitation away.

In economic terms, what was a demand-side problem is now a supply-side problem. Smart women are no longer willing to supply their labour in directorial positions for the profit of others.

Any further strides towards gender equality cannot come from women's networking events, or awareness-raising sessions for board directors, or even improved policies on flexible working. We are now at the point where only a fundamental shift in the applied model of a successful director or leader will unlock the boardroom door to the legions of women who are eligible, on paper, for a seat.

The culture of round-the-clock commitment; boozy strategy awaydays; a vague, tenuous knowledge of children; the ranking of decisive confidence above considered reflection and of rational analysis above emotional engagement - these are part of a package that right-minded women can hardly be blamed for turning down.

Women's choices and confidence have grown immeasurably in the past few decades, and this has resulted in many more women in the workplace. But to the surprise of old-school business leaders and old-school feminists alike, women are choosing to say no. They will only start saying yes if the deal improves. And the trouble is that the dinosaur directors cramming Britain's boardrooms show little sign of rethinking the fundamentals of business leadership.

In the end, the losers will not be the women - who will lead richer, more interesting and more fulfilling lives - but the desiccated men who assume these fossilised roles, and the businesses they run. Perhaps, then, we should not begrudge them a little shine upon their cuffs. They need all the consolation they can get.

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