Women may have the instinctive touch some gurus think vital for the future but the evidence is confused. Viewing it, Tom Lester finds a sex-change at the top is unlikely for many years to come.
The US president Bill Clinton's glowing endorsement of his wife Hillary when he put her in charge of health care reform within days of his inauguration was full of conviction: 'She's better at organising and leading people from a complex beginning to a certain end than anybody I've ever met in my life.' Well, he should know; the significance of the comment lay in the growing acceptance that women's management abilities are valuable resources that no society or business can afford to ignore.
As corporate managements on both sides of the Atlantic struggle to improve competitiveness, flexibility, and even their prospects of survival, they are changing their firms' structures and management styles, and beginning to see women not as substitute men, but as the possessors of a particular range of skills that have a growing relevance to problems in the corporate metabolism.
But what are those skills and how do they relate to the firm's development? Unfortunately, the issue which for so long has been shrouded in male prejudice, is now loaded with feminist rhetoric. Women may 'shatter the glass ceiling' and become the managers of the future as some enthusiasts suggest but, at present, the evidence is slim and its implications require careful interpretation. Sober analysis suggests it will be many more years before they make a real impact at the senior levels of the corporate juggernauts, whether as quasi-men or in their own right.
One obstacle to analysing the trend is the tiny number of women who have reached those exalted ranks. Only about 3% of senior managers are women, according to Institute of Management data, and their attitudes and experience will certainly be coloured by the other 97%. But academic research on women in management 48e concentrates almost exclusively on women themselves, the practical difficulties they face, and the differences between male and female management styles.
What has received less attention is the changing business environment and the implications this holds for female managers. If companies really are evolving in a way that demands a style that is instinctive to the generality of women, it follows that in future both parties should find it that much easier to work together.
For one example where a 'modern' corporate style and unequivocally female management go together, take the Bristol-based Lane Group. It is a family-owned transport company with a £15-million turnover, growing at around 20% annually, even in the current economic climate. Lane is headed by group managing director Rebecca Jenkins, aged 32. Daughter of the founder Peter Lane, she started in the transport business 10 years ago, when she trained for her Heavy Goods Vehicle licence. After a period as a driver in grocery distribution she joined the sales force: 'I was very clear about what I wanted to do,' she recalls. 'My ambition was to run this outfit.' As a diverse group offering training and workforce management as well as distribution and logistics services, Lane has a good reputation for attending closely to the specific demands of customers, such as The Body Shop or J A Sharwood. Jenkins's style evidently fits its current markets more closely than would the brawny traditions of the transport industry. She became sales and marketing director and, in 1989, managing director. Lane is 'a very open company,' she says,' 'where people know what the objectives are, and where it is going. They are empowered as far down the line as possible and information is available to any employee.' The 'Lane Commitment' sets down in black-and-white the need for dedication and excellence, but it also proclaims the group's 'core values of environmental awareness and friendly approach'. Jenkins believes that 'businesses now see a need for a mix of men and women... women are attuned to human dynamics, and have extremely good organisational skills - most of us need to have, because we combine running a home with our business lives.' Like Lane, many companies are trying to involve their employees more in the way the company is run, organising them into teams and task forces and promoting communication and co-operation where once there was discord and strife. A few are going further, shifting away from command-and-control styles of management to advise-and-facilitate, relying on staff to network together to achieve corporate goals rather than wait for the firm's creaking machinery to issue the necessary instructions. Unlike Lane, they are largely run by men.
Rank Xerox is a leader in the UK in drastically cutting the number of managers in its structure, and developing self-managed work groups to make the company more responsive to customers and better able to accommodate change. IBM similarly has abandoned its former 'confrontation management' in favour of more decentralisation, co-operation and empowerment of individuals.
Even the very centralised and hierarchical company J Sainsbury has concluded that its growing size and the strength of the competition demand more delegation and a flatter structure. Personnel director John Adshead, who is 'not all that committed to the notion that women's styles are different', has concluded that he cannot afford to waste the talents at his disposal. Branch managers of both sexes are therefore enjoined to nurture and develop their staff, and use a variety of management styles.
The trend is visible in the public sector, too. Valerie Strachan, the newly-appointed chairman of Customs and Excise, explains how, two years ago, her department 'took a hard look at the way we manage... to make sure that people were treated as real people within the organisation. Most of the staff are now in executive units with very clear accountability, and the emphasis has been placed on a more participtory style of management and on development training. We're also developing performance-related pay. The effects of all that are quite substantial changes in the approach to hierarchies.' None of this directly favours women, of course, unless it is true that their instinctive style does differ significantly from men's, and in a way that is more appropriate to the new corporate styles. Common experience, or prejudice, perhaps, suggests that an obsession with detail and 'the rules', parochialism, emotionalism and a lack of ambition may be female weak points; openness, pragmatism, perseverance, memory, organising skills, intuition and people-management strong ones.
Yet most academic research on the issue, says Judi Marshall, senior lecturer at Bath School of Management and author of Women Managers - Travellers in a Male World, reveals little convincing evidence that styles differ, and suggests that there are no important differences apart from a greater concern for people. She herself has found evidence among women of a more participative, less competitive style compared to men.
What is clear is the extreme difficulty of detecting, identifying and measuring what can be elusive qualities. All managers, Marshall points out, have to adapt their styles to the organisation and all the demands of the moment. Successful women, being such a tiny minority, will also have been influenced to some extent by the male stereotypes. So whom should you really be judging, how do you judge them, and against what criteria?
In the view of the psychometric testing specialists, Saville and Holdsworth (SHL), self-assessment is the only practical way of doing it. Relying on other people's judgment introduces another variable, cautions director Roger Holdsworth: 'Self-perception does correlate well with other perceptions, and it has an important bearing in its own right on management style.' In order to check the database resulting from its Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPQ) for gender differences, SHL gave its tests to an almost 3,000-strong sample, representative of the UK adult population (not just managers) - the results of which are illustrated in the table shown on page 48.
The OPQ measures some 30 attributes, and for some, such as detail consciousness and emotional control, there are no real differences, contrary to popular experience. But many more women than men do consider themselves 'caring' and 'artistic'; many more men consider themselves 'tough-minded' and 'competitive'. Caution is required in the use made of the data, however: for each attribute, there is a wide overlap in distribution between the sexes, so that differences within the sex are much greater than between them. Further, each attribute has a specific, not a general meaning - 'tough-minded', for example, refers to feelings and emotions, not necessarily to a readiness to take unpleasant decisions. Finally, other people may quite legitimately have different perspectives - someone who regards himself or herself as 'caring' may seem a veritable dragon to other members of staff.
A recent debate on the subject in the Harvard Business Review was sparked off by a research study by Judy Rosener of the University of California. Undeterred by the difficulties of proving her case, she argued that the first generation of female executives had played by men's rules, but 'now a second wave of women is making its way to top management' drawing on their innate skills rather than copying masculine ones. She surveyed leadership styles among around 230 members of the International Women's Forum, plus male counterparts whom they were asked to select.
Unfortunately, the nationality and details of the participants were not revealed, but the results were claimed to show that men were more likely to explain their management technique in terms of a 'transaction' - rewards or otherwise for services rendered - and the power conferred by the organisation. Women, on the other hand, tended to achieve their ends by persuading subordinates to align their self-interest with the broader interests of the group, by encouraging participation, and using charisma and personal contacts rather than status as their power base.
In fact, many women derive their power, or are 'sponsored' by senior people in the organisation, at least in the initial stages of a career leap. They can be really ruthless, finds Dick Penfold, the director of human resources for P-E International, the management consultants, but can 'fall like stones' without senior level support. He speaks from the experience of using Blake's Managerial Grid (P-E has the UK licence for this US-designed technique) to help managers develop their own management styles. The grid differentiates between concern for people and concern for production, task or results. The women on Penfold's courses (around 10% of the 200 or so managers given the treatment in the past three years), 'did show more concern about people and more care about getting them on board', he says, 'but there is a small minority who ignore this, and in our sample, tough women are as tough as men.' Given the circumstances of the real world, it is perhaps not surprising that many women have needed help to lift them off the launching pad. Jenifer Rosenberg, founder of a major Marks and Spencer supplier, J and J Fashions (now sold rather litigiously to Claremont Garments), reckons that having built a £50-million-plus business, 'I'm as tough as any man - possibly tougher'. She was the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year in 1986, but freely acknowledges the support she has received from two husbands (the first died two years after J and J was founded.) Similarly, the Lane Group's Jenkins, the late Laura Ashley, Janet Reger and Anita Roddick all have or had sponsors as mentors, power reservoirs and cheer leaders. Wenche Marshall Foster is chief executive of Perrier in the UK. With a tall, commanding presence and a reputation as a 'positive autocrat', she gives no impression 50e that she, too, once needed a sponsor. Julian Bowes set up Perrier in the UK, and before he died in 1984, 'he taught me everything I know,' says Marshall Forster. 'His style was quite autocratic, and to reach the top position after him was quite awesome. It takes time to see what works best. But I quickly realised that we all have strengths and weaknesses, so I surround myself with people to complement me - to make a true team.' A similarly dynamic picture is presented by Gail Rebuck, UK chairman and chief executive of the US publishing group Random House. A protege of the volatile Anthony Cheetham, who built Century Hutchinson before having a disagreement with its present owners, Rebuck herself has an enviable reputation for energy and drive, which has enabled her to survive the ructions of the publishing industry to tackle her present job - forging the disparate UK elements such as Bodley Head, Jonathan Cape and a clutch of others as well as Century Hutchinson. 'Not a consensus-driven person,' according to a male colleague, Rebuck herself is 'conscious of pursuing a style that suits the creative business I'm in. It's about empowering and creating. You can't rule it from the top, you've got to push it down the line. You need a horizontal group that is prepared to take responsibility and make it work.' Two-thirds of her UK managers are women, and she believes that in general they are 'more co-operative than confrontational, incredibly direct and honest, with a more intuitive understanding of others...' Men get bad marks, from Rebuck and others, for being uptight rather than up-front, even calculating and devious. This is a big problem in the open, communicative company, and is put down partly to long-term ambition and career-mindedness, but also simply to ego. Victoria Hardman, chief executive of the Hampstead, Bloomsbury and Islington Health Authority in London, is one of several women who complain of the difficulties this creates: 'Men are frightened to look foolish, they're worried about their status, and unwilling to break out.' It's a weakness that makes them very vulnerable to flattery, Hardman finds, and she's not above using it to her advantage. Although she says, 'I'm fairly authoritarian', she sometimes adopts 'a bubblier, childlike responsiveness' to gain her ends. Hardman makes no apologies for such tactics: at only 5ft 2in, she admits to some difficulties making her presence felt in large groups, where tall, noisy men inevitably have an advantage.
In a prejudiced world, a woman has to find her own way, agrees Rosemarie Griffith, the managing director of Welsh Dragon, a small conglomerate with big ambitions. Her assertion problems put Hardman's in the shade. Welsh Dragon's main activities at the moment are in the Welsh coal industry - mining, washing, blending and packaging. At the time of writing, Griffith had just re-employed 40 miners who had been sacked for sticking to traditional practices over the Christmas and New Year period. 'We don't recognise the unions,' she explains, 'and you have to establish a one-to-one relationship if you want the maximum from each person.' She has therefore been sitting down with all employees for half an hour to explain what the company is about and where they fit in. Managers (all five of them at the moment) are included in all board meetings, 'so they can take the credit'.
The Australian-born Griffith, who worked for Tandy and Computerland before becoming a consultant, believes that men are 'definitely blocked by their ego'. She says, 'I've worked with a lot of men, and I know I can detect problems faster than they can and do something about it before it's too late. When we took this company over, it was totally insolvent - there was nothing right. The man before me in this job created the impression he was indispensable, and that the company would fold without him.' As managing director she has the freedom 'to get on and do things' - and loves it.
Perhaps that is what lies behind tradition-bound males' fears about women in management: that when women taste that freedom and power, the writing will be on the notice board. Marshall Foster warns, 'Once women are on the ladder, they are much more competitive than men. Over the next two decades, we will see many more women going above middle management levels.' But the traditionalists will find the going tough whether or not women beat them to the top, as the move towards open, co-operative structures gathers pace. Diversity among managers, and an adaptable, androgynous style are already the fashion in advanced companies. Vive la difference.
HOW MEN AND WOMEN DIFFER
Women Men V%
Controlling 5.1 6.1 4.4
Affiliative 5.6 5.2 0.4
Democratic 5.6 5.4 1.2
Caring 5.9 5.1 7.2
Practical 5.2 5.8 5.3
Data rational 5.2 6.2 3.4
Artistic 5.8 5.3 1.8
Behavioural 5.8 5.4 0.9
Conceptual 5.4 6.0 0.6
Relaxed 5.0 6.1 4.1
Worrying 6.0 5.0 4.5
Tough-minded 4.7 6.0 8.7
Emotional control 5.3 5.6 N/S
Active 5.2 5.9 6.5
Competitive 5.0 5.9 4.9
Independent 5.2 5.7 1.3
Modest 5.5 5.6 N/S
Innovative 5.2 5.6 1.5
Conscientious 5.5 5.5 N/S
Critical 5.2 5.9 2.7
Achieving 4.8 5.8 1.7
Decisive 5.4 5.7 2.8
Optimistic 5.6 5.6 N/S
Detail conscious 5.7 5.6 N/S
Source: Saville and Holdsworth (SHL) survey to validate the Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPQ). Almost 3,000 men and women, representative of the UK population, were asked how they rated themselves on the 30 OPQ attributes (24 of which are listed above). Each score shows the mean on a standard 10 scale for the 34-39 age bracket: in all cases,differences within the sexes were greater than between them, and there was considerable variation over age. The final column shows, across all ages, how small a proportion of the variances (V) are attributable to sex. N/S - no statistically valid difference.