Downturn could make glass ceiling even thicker

Nov 21 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

The global recession could make it even harder for women to break into the boardroom, despite evidence suggesting we might be in less of a mess now if more women had been in charge in the first place.

Women are better suited to lead modern organisations and meet the challenges of an increasingly people-centred management environment, according to new research.

Yet in the current downturn even the most talented women will struggle to reach positions of influence because (mostly male) senior managers will increasingly promote those who exhibit more familiar "male" characteristics.

An analysis of assessments and psychometric testing of more than 65,000 people by management consultancy Hudson has concluded that the innate ability of many women to be altruistic, people-oriented, co-operative and open lends themselves much better to leading modern-day organisations.

Yet it is these very traits that stop many women progressing within their organisations.

As a result, many women end up adopting or mimicking "male" leadership traits in an effort to break into senior leadership positions.

And with more organisations promoting traditionally "male" traits of decisiveness, persuasiveness and leadership in order to survive the downturn, women are going to find it even harder to make an impact at high levels.

Karen Scott, managing director of Hudson UK, said: "We are concerned that companies might adopt a short-term view that reinforces the hierarchy of men over women in their efforts to succeed during a recession.

"Not only will this reverse the recent progress of gender equality in business, it might be to the detriment of the organisation. Our study suggests that women could actually make better leaders than men, when not forced to adopt a traditionally 'male' style, sacrificing their own natural instincts in the process," she added.

C-level women in general showed personality traits that were almost the opposite of women in general, the research found.

Like C-level men, C-level women scored very highly on extraversion, decisiveness, strategic thinking, results-focus and autonomy.

But C-level women, contrary to their male colleagues, also paid attention to more typically female characteristics surrounding altruism and openness.

Younger female leaders appeared to focus much more on altruism, people orientation and cooperation, while more experienced female leaders tended to concentrate on openness and thought leadership.

Etienne Van Keer, executive director at Hudson R&D and author of the report, added: "Currently, the 'dominant coalition' inside the boards of organisations still favours male clones of the current leadership.

"We found that women tend not to push themselves to the fore of an organisation's thinking: old habits die hard, and women still like 'to be asked'. But the demographic evolution of the population and the changing nature of business will force organisations to pay more attention to what women have to offer," she suggested.

"At the same time, the specific requirements of new generations of employees might also teach them that women can offer extra added-value as leaders, potentially enhancing an organisation's leadership style," she added.

The well-recognised problem for many top-level women in leadership positions was that they found themselves with an identity dilemma: if they acted like a typical male leader they were perceived as "hard" or "cold" because their behaviour jarred with that perceived to be of a stereotypical woman, argued Scott.

But if they acted like a "typical" women they were perceived as being less effective, because the typically male personality traits were still perceived to be more effective.

"One could nevertheless argue that women leaders could benefit from developing their more typically feminine personality traits," said Scott.

"We urge organisations to look at which business attitudes are more critical for their current and future leaders in relation to their business context and strategy, before deciding which men or women are best suited for the roles. Structured assessment and development programmes can help organisations identify the right leaders," she added.

Figures in September from the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission suggested there is still a long, long way to go before men and women gained equality in the boardroom.

Its annual Sex and Power study calculated that women held just 11 per cent of FTSE-100 directorships and, at the current rate of progress, would take 73 years to be equally represented.

And a study by U.S website in August concluded American workplaces were still rife with jobs for the boys, pay inequality and twin-track, gender-based promotions.

More controversially, research published last month by the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs argued that managers should stop worrying about the gender pay gap and just get on with the day-to-day challenges of management.

Men earned more money than women not because they were inherently favoured in the workplace but because they worked longer hours, put in the overtime, went out of their way to seek higher pay and promotion and did not stop working to have families, it argued.