THE GENDER AGENDA - As the workplace has changed, so too has our attitude towards women and to the qualities needed to excel as leaders An MT survey points to a future of women at the top, alongside men who are in touch with their feminine side. Peter York looks at the responses and asks - Are you woman enough to be boss?
Oh how they laughed. Poor Andrew Gilbert of Handforth, Cheshire, a bank clerk of 23, spent six months of misery working for Britain's youngest bank manager, Kathryn Dowse, 21. The story of her unremitting bullying, hauteur and all-round animosity made the tabloids last year. 'She ruined my life,' said Gilbert after the employment tribunal upheld his wrongful dismissal. One tabloid heralded 'Women bosses who bully their workers into the dole queue' and went on to tell of women, too, who'd been bullied something rotten by female bosses. The broadsheets followed with analyses.
Had the case set back the cause of female management? Was it typical?
A foretaste? Did it matter?
Lesley Riddoch said, sensibly enough, in the Guardian, that part of equality is the right to make mistakes and that women should be judged as people - and, like people generally, some would turn out to be very nasty indeed.
The difference of course was the coverage, perhaps 10 times what would have been generated by a comparable man-on-man or man-on-woman employment dispute.
Women bosses are a hot issue, a sensitive one. And with good reason.
The fact is that experience of them is already widespread at certain levels and in certain sectors, and the equally indisputable fact is that there are a lot more coming along. August's A-level girls with their excellent grades and neat comprehensive revision lists are pouring into the universities right now. And they're assured, so recent history suggests, of generally good degrees, while the men are more inconsistent - a few over-achievers and a longer tail of failure.
The future of management everywhere just has to be a lot more female.
Discount it every way you like - for residual recruiting prejudice, for a distorted pattern of entry to different business sectors, for the pram in the hall and the odd failure of nerve (although these girls today appear never to look down) - and you still have a situation where significant numbers of people everywhere, at every level, are going to be managed by a woman.
The big symbolic barriers are down - prime minister, chief executives of top 100 companies here and in the US, and the omnipresent 'Blair's Babes'. Already there are many more junior and middling female managers in some sectors - retailing comes to mind, along with local government and personal financial services - and there are many more women starting businesses of every kind. The banks report the numbers of female-owned start-ups as being in vertical take-off.
But what really matters are the upcoming numbers in corporate life, the familiar experience, the critical mass. That moment when it's no big thing - precisely because it is so big - and we can settle down to ask what kind of a thing it will be. What can we learn from present experience, from current attitudes, that will help us anticipate this female future?
What will it mean for people's lives, for the way we feel and the way we work together?
The existing research seems episodic, confusing, contradictory. Or the headline treatment of it does. 'Woman bosses kinder, more considerate' one survey seems to demonstrate. But another, from MORI, quotes most of the nation - men and women alike - saying a woman boss is their worst nightmare. Another study, from Manchester Business School, suggests female owner-managers are 'autocratic' and unwilling to delegate or take risks.
When you look at these studies more closely you see what partial perspectives they present. But the coverage, the headlines, the editorial mood swings, show it's an absolute can-of-worms issue, with conflicted attitudes, repression, threatened self-esteem, prejudice and PC-ness - and that's only the men - all writhing away.
There are great raging 'undiscussables' on both sides. One indication of this is just how cagey some successful women managers are about the whole subject. A couple of high-profile stars talked to me on condition it was really, absolutely, off the record, because they never commented publicly on gender issues. It made their working lives more complicated, stored up resentments and generally put a barrier between them and their colleagues. They wanted to get on with the job, be judged as a person, and so forth. But off the record it was clear enough they saw real differences, with explanations ranging from women's trained sensitivity to the 'human agenda' issues to men's hormonal problems. (I heard that T-word a lot.)
Our contribution to the debate is simple and illuminating. In July, Management Today surveyed 1,000 middle and senior UK managers with a carefully worded questionnaire covering the key issues about men and women as managers, and let them complete it unobserved and anonymously. We have analysed 200 replies, half men, half women. They are - like you, gentle reader - pretty representative of UK management both over and under 40, but with a natural modern bias to service businesses. Equally obviously, they're not the world and his wife; they are all working, better educated, better paid, higher status. And what the findings suggest - we're not claiming they're definitive - is pretty hopeful.
In sharp contrast to the mass surveys - all ages, all levels - a majority of our managers simply didn't think men make better bosses than women.
Six out of 10 disagreed or disagreed strongly with that idea while only 13.7% agreed (another 25.7% were neutral). Broken down by gender, the responses showed women even more certain in their rejection: 68.8% of them disagreed, as against only just over half the men, 52.3%. Asked if they'd rather work for a boss of the same sex, a third of our managers, 34.5%, said no - but the majority claimed to have no strong feelings either way. Men and those over 40 emerged as more likely to prefer to work for a same-sex boss (pick yourself up off the floor there).
Women, so it turned out, saw male bosses as decisive, team-leading types but emphasised their insensitivity. Men, by contrast, saw women as considerate, open-minded team players. A majority said men were no more willing than women when it came to making unpopular decisions. (The women respondents weren't quite so confident - only a third of them disagreed.)
A different pattern emerged in response to a question about inspiring confidence. Six in 10 overall rejected the idea that men are more likely than women to inspire staff confidence - but women rejected it much more strongly. Fewer than half of the men, 47.6%, disagreed, but 71.7% of the women disputed the idea.
When it came to the familiar question of levels of risk aversity - ie, are women really so famously cautious - we carefully inverted the question, asking our managers to respond to the notion that 'men tend to be more risk averse then women'. Of the men, 63.5% disagreed, while only 53.7% of the women did, which I read as meaning that women managers are less inclined to accept that particular stereotype now.
Answers to the soft-factor questions were interesting, too. On the face of it, rather more people would prefer to hear bad news from a female than a male boss - 53.8%. Broken down by gender, however, while more than seven in 10 of the women agreed, only four in 10 of the men did - that is, the majority would still rather hear the worst from a same-sex boss.
Women bosses were seen as more trustworthy by both sexes. In response to the vexed question of who you'd trust not to take credit for your work, a male or a female boss, the majority - six in 10 - said they'd trust a female boss more.
And seven in 10 said women bosses praise their staff more. Only a fifth of women and a third of men cited male bosses as 'clappers and strokers'.
Women are seen as the better time-managers, and better at customer relations. Not surprisingly, there are wide variations in response, but even so a majority of men admitted the time-management superiority - and they were even-handed on customer relations.
There's more, but you get the picture - more complex, constructive and evolved responses from this untypically complex, evolved and terribly relevant group of people. Let's imagine, for argument's sake, that the men were being amazingly PC, even when unobserved.
Nonetheless, these responses suggest that those familiar headline-making prejudices are declining at the managerial coalface. They should give comfort to businesses dithering about whether to promote women into roles where they manage numbers of men. They hardly suggest that alarm, despondency and insurrection will follow.
Equally, are the women whistling in the dark to keep their spirits up until the doors are really wide open? Maybe sisterly feeling exaggerates some of the gung-ho answers, but it also stands in stark contrast to the 'women beware women' findings of the mass surveys. A group of ambitious women is more inclined, so I'd suggest, to admire each other's achievements than women who feel they're less cut out for success - for whatever reason.
Our managers' additional comments are revealing, too. A lot tended to the view that 'people are people, good and bad everywhere'. Thus: 'Gender has nothing to do with ability to manage. It is a case of drive, personality and intelligence.' That's a 40-plus male manufacturing manager speaking.
And, even more affirmatively: 'The best bosses I've had have been male and female - it's not the gender, it's the person - however, I think women are generally better bosses.' This from an under-40 man in the services sector.
Some women highlighted the differences in a chauvinistic way: 'Men can't multi-task like women' and 'Having an ego and spouting bull is pretty passe these days. Blokes who still lead this way won't make it in the millennium.'
Both men and women touched on the issue of trade-offs - ie, they believed there were characteristic differences in male and female styles of management, that they were complementary, and that promotion and recruitment decisions were all down to having a clear-headed view of the management tasks in hand. 'In my experience the difference between female managers and male managers is that women are better with people and men better with concrete objects. Leaders, however, are alike and different regardless of sex,' said a 40-plus woman from the public sector, while an over-40 man from the service sector said: 'Women empathise, give warm feelings and base decisions on historical personal experiences. They are not good on vision, leadership of new industries and taking the right decisions for the company long-term. Rather than doing the right things, they make sure they do things right.'
Last year my own business, SRU, conducted some very grand research for Saxton Bampfylde, the head-hunters. They asked us to talk to women who had demonstrably gone way beyond the 'glass ceiling' and were extremely successful by anybody's lights as top corporate managers or in public sector roles.
The findings were fascinating. These women had got through the glass ceiling because they didn't believe it was there - or so they told us.
They had a highly developed self-belief, often derived from supportive parents who'd told them anything was possible for girls. They didn't believe in role-playing - from kittens to nannies - any more than they believed in being an 'honorary man'. All those gambits were hopelessly outdated in their view. What they did concede was that there had been a need to network more intelligently, to make yourself useful and to be assiduous in the early stages of your career (these were forty-and fiftysomethings).
One top woman told us how this had meant a 'zig-zag' pattern of progression across the divisions of an organisation before reaching the top, rather than 'a boy's straight-arrow move up the ladder'. She felt it had made her a better boss. She knew how many of the key processes actually worked and she knew how the people who worked at them saw the world. This meant she knew how to communicate and motivate and really make things happen - rather than just making charismatic gestures. (As another top woman told me crisply, 'Men like wearing chefs' hats!')
Sir Colin Southgate, chairman of the Royal Opera House, outgoing chairman and chief executive of EMI Group (with wide experience of contrasted big businesses with soft and hard cultures), has worked with senior women of all kinds. 'Women are tougher, much harder with both sexes, when they get to the top. They've had to be very decisive all the way through. I've seen some women be incredibly brave and calm in high-pressure situations, and I've seen them get over-emotional. It's very difficult to generalise.
But I know that the mixture of male and female managers is good for a business. The question for women in the future is about strategy. They're dedicated to doing a good job but they must demonstrate the ability to think long term, too. Men, on the other hand, need to be more flexible.
Men get big ideas and just can't be persuaded out of them.'
Gail Rebuck, chairman and chief executive of Random House Group, and the UK's most powerful book publisher, thinks the whole question of male and female management qualities is being knocked sideways by history.
'I used to think there was a difference but I'm not so sure now. There are just people - they're good at it or they're not. Ten, 15 years ago I wrote about the feminisation of management styles - the need for emotional intelligence, less hierarchy, more co-operative teams at work - because I thought it had to come. But now there's been a sea change in style. The female skills have become the norm.
'People have to be innovative, intuitive, have a light touch, be open to needs and so on, or they're simply not modern. The female is modern, whoever's doing it. I find even an older generation of men are trying to change, too. It's all about the way you need to behave to cope with the roller-coaster of constant uncertainty and change.
I used to believe, looking up from where I was then, that men were more hierarchical by nature - that it was a power thing and they wanted a traditional pyramid with somebody at the top. But it's all changed; it's not the way successful companies are run now. Women do get on with things. They have to if they're juggling competing priorities.
'My image of traditional men's behaviour is the jacket on the back of the chair - the big symbol of 'man at work late at night'. But why couldn't they get it done during the day? Now men want to spend quality time with their families, too. The long-hours, jacket-on-chair culture is a symbol on its way out.'
The fact is we won't really know about the distinctive qualities of women as managers until there's a solid cohort of them at every level - no longer exceptional, no longer with anything consciously to prove, no longer remotely an ideological issue. And as that happens, we need to remember the 'big picture' questions about Year 2000 management generally.
In a period where it seems that no management book is capable of surviving without an apocalyptic title - change at the very least but more probably blood, chaos or anarchy, referring to the three grim horsemen of the business apocalypse - globalism, new technology and unbridled competition - what have the seers been saying about the qualities that all successful managers will need in the future. You've got it. Emotional intelligence, flexibility, team-working co-operativeness. The end of hierarchy.
The need, as our Californian friends say, for absolutely everyone to get in touch with the female side of their nature.
Add in de-layering, transparency, market-facing, change-embracing. We all know the mantra, all those key words that overwhelmingly derive from that most female-friendly disciple of the 1990s, Human Resources.
It's a change which, as Rebuck says, is changing men. Some are finding it liberating; others deeply threatening. And it's a turn-up for the book for established women managers who've been through a singular set of pressures.
'When I was starting out in corporate life,' said one of my informants, 'they used to brief us few hopeful girl graduates about what it took, and it was always in this terrible code about 'managing your emotional responses' - meaning don't be too girly, have your female side cauterised. You had to over-correct then. It's a complete game of double mirrors now that men are being told to be parenting, emotionally intelligent and all that. In complicated situations the T-thing gets in the way. It pre-supposes the Big Swinging Dicks have all the best ideas, and that's so obviously not true.'
When will we know change has found its own level? Here's one criterion: a few years back, Yve Newbold, then company secretary at Hanson, was famously quoted as saying: 'I'll only be happy when there are as many mediocre women running organisations as there are mediocre men.'
WHAT'S YOUR E-TYPE?
There is an energy factor among the elements of executive leadership - after years of observation I call it the 'E-Quotient' - which makes those who apply it in the right amount many times more effective than those using too much or too little. This effectiveness often depends on the culture, the audience, the setting - and a narrow 'Comfort Zone' that is determined not by the executive, but by those he or she is trying to lead.
How do you get the balance right in your leadership E-Quotient? You need first to understand your intent and your intensity.
Intent depends on the clarity of your thinking, which in turn creates the resolution and the will to make things happen. What you aim to achieve - your purpose - will create focus and alignment. Strong leaders say clear intent enables them to deal with 'antibodies' - people who want to protect the status quo. It takes stamina and 'E' to outlast them.
Intent shapes your 'endgame'. What specific results do you want? What relationships will emerge? The best leaders combine understanding of their employees' needs with the energy and vision to make things happen.
Intensity is also vital, but too much of it is a turn-off. Sometimes those who have trouble being heard increase their energy intensity to get 'airtime' - consciously or unconsciously. The increased intensity creates a 'noise' that obscures what you are trying to say. The audience 'hears' the intensity, not the message.
So, how do you know how much 'E' to apply?
Your E-Quotient shifts with the audience; larger groups need more intensity than smaller ones and expect more 'E' in your gestures. A steady speaking pace, with pauses at the end of phrases, indicates balanced 'E'. Audiences in America, for example, expect more hyperbole than in those in Britain.
Executives who feel they have been short-changed in their careers may want to look at their E-Quotient. Those who have too little tend to be ignored, while those at the high end of the 'E' scale can 'blow away' the people they most want to engage.
An example: When the new CEO walked into the room, everyone knew he was different from previous leaders. His energy crackled as he explained the company's situation and revealed his vision of the future. His conviction of future success and belief in the staff's ability to make it happen enthralled them. His energy level was contagious and the staff wanted to join him.
They doubled profits in a year as he did all the right things - created quick wins, cared about staff as individuals, reinforced his message. Followers admired him, yet some remained wary. In front of a group, his E-Quotient was right on - but one-on-one, his intensity and quick mind could overwhelm some people.
So, with coaching, he worked on toning down his 'E' one-on-one, when necessary.
YOUR E-QUOTIENT IS TOO LOW IF:
Others interrupt you and finish your sentences.
People don't know where you stand on issues.
When you expect a response, people are silent or change the subject.
Others say you are not tough enough, too detailed, not incisive, overly accommodating, uninspiring, boring ...
To develop more 'E', connect with and listen to many people to make sure they are hearing your message and you are heeding their feedback.
Get clear about your intent before running a meeting and put out enough 'E' to take charge.
YOUR E-QUOTIENT IS TOO HIGH IF:
People argue with what you say even when you are simply stating a fact.
Your words 'leap out' when you don't mean to say them.
Others complain they can't get heard when you are in the meeting.
Others say you are emotional, intense, out-of-control, insensitive, aggressive, arrogant, adversarial, judgmental, callous ...
To tone down your 'E', pause and count to three at the end of sentences. Take time before meetings to focus your thinking and be aware that your pace may overwhelm others who need to think through what you are saying. Have someone let you know when your 'E' is rising.
YOUR E-QUOTIENT IS IN BALANCE IF:
Others pay attention to what you are saying, without straining.
People want to talk to you, even when their ideas are not fully formed.
Followers walk away with intent, ready to implement your strategy.
Others say you are inspiring, encouraging, challenging, passionate in your beliefs, firm but fair ...
To lead effectively in a global marketplace, you need to locate the 'E Comfort Zone' for the situation. The key to staying there is to observe yourself and others and adjust your style accordingly.
Dr Karen Otazo, the author, has spent over 25 years in human resources and as an executive coach in Europe, Asia and North America. E-mail: email@example.com.