Blog against sexism day

Today is International Women’s Day, and as Tigtog has reminded me, it’s Blog against sexism day.

Why aren’t there more women in senior management?

In Australia, according to the EOWA (pdf), of Australia’s top 200 listed companies, 8.7% of directors are female, and 12% of senior exectuives (CEOs plus direct reports) are female. Only 60% of companies have at least one senior executive manager who is female.

So why is that? My expertise is just that of a woman who has made to a reasonably high level in one of those ASX200 companies. I’ve talked about this before, but I think the key is that there are lots of reasons.

First, simple, old fashioned sexism still exists. I was at a women’s breakfast the other day, and was appalled by the stories of sexual harassment, plain and simple, told about being on a trading desk in an electricity company last year. That’s the kind of thing it’s easy to assume doesn’t happen any more, or if it does, only in the most traditional blue collar place. Sadly, not true.

Even without overt sexual harassment, I’ve witnessed many performance discussions where women are judged against different criteria than men. A man who tends to keep quiet during meetings is thoughtful; a woman is diffident. A man who likes to get his point across forcefully is slightly arrogant; a woman is shrill. A man who tends to talk as he thinks is intuitive; a woman is ditzy.

My favourite, though is the one about two fairly equivalent people in my team a few years ago. The consensus of many of the male senior managers was that the woman was good with people, and the man was good at selling. The truth, if you looked at the evidence (360 degree feedback and actual sales to clients) was precisely the opposite. But if you don’t have a woman to point all these things out, then stereotypes just keep on perpetuating.

Second, one that often gets lost, is the importance of mentoring. If you are going to get to very senior management levels, you don’t get there without some help along the way.  It tends to be very informal. It’s a bit like a series of apprenticeships. Senior managers will tend to take a good junior under their wing – give them advice every now and again – put them on the interesting projects – recommend other people for them to talk to when they’re ready for their next challenge; etc. And, naturally, often people choose someone in their own image – someone who is just like they were 10 years ago. So it’s much harder to get that kind of help if you are a woman trying to make it in a male industry.

Third, women, in general, are significantly worse than men at negotiating on their own behalf. According to this study, generally women are much more likely to settle for the first offer, to not negotiate the extras they might get (bonuses etc). But only on their own behalf. In the short term, that just might mean that they get paid less. But as you go through a career, if you are paid less, then people take you less seriously, and don’t necessarily think you are ready for the next step.

Let me make this part clear – the fact that women tend not to negotiate on their own behalf as effectively as men does not make them less effective as executives. It makes them a cheaper hire for their company, and hence more valuable. But most companies don’t see it that way – not understanding their valuable resources.

Finally, while women generally take far more time out of their career to look after their children than men do, I don’t believe that this reason belongs in my top three reasons why there aren’t more women in senior management. Many women take more time out of their career than they would necessarily take in a perfect world, simply because by the time they get to that point, they know that they work in a place where they do start behind the eight-ball.

So if you are a senior manager, think carefully about the solution to my three issues – are you honestly not sexist in how you rate people? Do you choose who you mentor based on quality, rather than their similarity to you? Do you take make every effort to pay people of similar ability and performance a similar amount?

On International Women’s Day, take some time to think. Because as an employer, you will have a competitive advantage if you make full use of all your workforce.

  4 comments for “Blog against sexism day

  1. March 8, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    I’m really not paying attention. Thanks for the heads up! Even in an organisation largely run and staffed by women, these stereotypes still persist (always fascinating to see in action). Will send out a reminder.

  2. March 9, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    Good points, all. I’d say, too, that one of my major frustrations as a woman manager, is that I always mentor women, and yet am not always able to help them overcome the various obstacles in their way–and those obstacles cause them to leave. And then I’m the manager whose mentees never stick around. As opposed to the manager who only picks men to mentor.

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