MT Special: How women can help men to raise their game

In this guest column, entrepreneur Julie Meyer argues that women must appeal to men's rational self-interest if they want to get ahead.

by Julie Meyer
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Last week, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I presented at the MWomen initiative, a drive to bring mobile technologies to women in the developing world. And I found myself being posed questions along the lines of: "when will we see gender parity?", and "what can we do to advance women’s leadership?" I also contributed to Lord Davies’ consultation for his report on women in boardrooms, which will be coming out later this week.

I work at the cross-section of two industries, technology and venture capital, which many would argue are male-dominated. For 23 years, my investors, clients and team have been mostly men. What I’ve come to realise is that balance between the sexes in the work force does bring out the best in us both. But the only way to achieve that is to appeal to rational self-interest. Men only do what they think is in their interest. So you have to prove to them, very plainly, that it is in their interest for women to have more power, both in society and in companies.

When men are in an exclusively male environment and faced with a woman joining – whether that’s a board room or a club - they worry that they’ll have to behave better. No more jokes. They won’t be able to act like little boys. When women are in an all girls’ environment, they can lack the competitiveness and drive to make tremendous things happen. They can also become catty. But if you shake it up a bit, you even it all out. Everybody plays a better game.

I’ve seen all sorts of bad behaviour during my career. I’ve seen men treat their female colleagues and their PAs in horrendous ways that have shocked me. But what I've also noticed is that nearly all the time they speak about their daughters, you get a glimpse of what they want for them: a world where their female progeny can experience fairness and a respect for their contribution.

Put bluntly: you mess with their daughters, and you will earn their wrath.

I find that women tend to think more 'community', i.e. whether something works for the group, much more naturally.

Men 'get' this when it comes to their daughters. It’s a much shorter hop for them to realise and internalise that everyone woman is someone’s daughter, and therefore, treat her with the respect you would want your own daughter to be afforded.

I’ve always worked for myself, so I don’t really know what it means to try to break through the glass ceiling. I know that I've had a much more successful career because I set up my own structures rather than trying to convince people of my value to their organisations. Over the years I’ve worked, I’ve seen more women achieve leadership in their industries and happiness in their lives by working for themselves rather than others.

This century will be the one where female strength is understood – as will the fact that it’s not a zero sum game.

The world is becoming feminine. The implicit network-orientation to all business plays to women's strengths to think group, network, community. In a world where there are multiple centres of power, influence becomes dominant; control doesn’t work. The multi-tasking ability that most women take for granted helps them excel in a world where we are getting pummelled with information constantly.   

Like all change throughout history, the winners are those who get to the other side first.  There is no question that women will play greater leadership roles in countries, companies and in families in the 21st century. I personally think that they will achieve their roles in the business community through successful entrepreneurship rather than climbing the corporate ranks.  I decided a long time ago to build my own cathedral rather than trying to break through the glass ceiling.

Any entrepreneur knows that you can’t win by playing by the rules of someone else’s game. That’s what entrepreneurship is at its core: assymetrical warfare. Women will use entrepreneurship to achieve their ambitions.

But men have an equally subversive way to win. They can embrace women’s leadership when perhaps they are only partially convinced. Their gut may tell them that a lot is still to be worked out between managing families, managing workplace responsibilities etc. They may feel that boys will have to start behaving in the boardrooms. Or they may have had experiences with some outstanding women who worked very hard.  They may decide to support women in the workplace just because they want to create a world where their own daughters will not be held back. They may even see a glimmer of the future millenials in the workplace – Generation Y – who have an uncanny resemblance to women of Generation X. What may end up being in men’s rational self-interest is to relax into a world which is no longer zero sum – which is about helping each other raise our game.   

My father always said to me: 'It takes a very strong man to appreciate a strong woman'. Let’s hope that we have very strong men indeed. And that we all get to the other side together. 

Julie Meyer is the chief executive of investment and advisory firm Ariadne Capital, and one of the dragons on the BBC's Online Dragons Den.

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