The problem with women; versus the solution of women

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Reflections from Rebecca Riley on the world of work for International Women’s day 2017.

As a woman, I find the attitude that women are a problem to be solved frustrating as it sees half of the population as an issue to be dealt with, a generalisation which of course isn’t true. As someone interested in data, I also find quantifying the impact of changing women’s circumstances difficult, we are not a population of Miss/Ms/Mrs Average and we are not a population of shared desires, needs and wants.

International Women’s day will see us bombarded with statistics about “the problem with women”, and initially that was my starting point in looking at writing this blog. But I would like to turn that on its head and look at the “solution of women” whilst exploring the world of work.

Starting close to home City-REDI has a good gender balance with senior staff split 50:50 and a slight positive balance to women in early career roles, this potentially reflects the changes in the academic workforce. In the sector the male/female balance is equalising due to high numbers of women going into higher education and continuing their career in higher education. However fewer women generally in academia hold leadership positions, which reflects the general workforce. Although the general position is getting better, for instance the proportion of female MPs has risen from 6% in 1987 to 29% in 2015, there is still some way to go to achieve a balance.

But beyond the equality reasoning, what are the positive effects of more women in decision making, leadership and the workforce? How do our varied, collective talents improve the world of work?

  • Significantly better financial performance, companies with better female representation excel on sales, return on equity and investment. Gender diversity pays off, the DDI global leadership forecast consistently shows this, where the top performing 20% of organisations have 37% of leaders being women, and 12% are high potential women, compared to the bottom 20% where the numbers are 19% and 8%.
  • Improved financial health leads to improved productivity and greater opportunity for job creation across the board.
  • Women make most brand buying decisions, but they are excluded from decision making. If decision makers don’t reflect the buyer, how can they reflect customer needs? Having a more diverse workforce helps you achieve better customer sales.
  • There is greater innovation within non-hierarchical, diverse organisations where collaboration, networking and teamwork create better solutions and ideas. Work by Hashi Sydain in People Management has shown women are more likely to challenge and clarify which produces better products and results.
  • McKinsey in 2009 found that of the top 3 traits needed to get out of the financial crisis, two were seen as female attributes “using expectation and rewards” and “offering inspiration” whereas “intellectual stimulation” was gender neutral.

To access these benefits and bring the added value of women to the workforce the norms of the workplace have to be challenged. It is easy to focus on quotas and targets as a solution to drive behaviour, but the real solution if tackling the cultures that prevent women engaging and tackling those can benefit men and women. The world of work needs to re-evaluate the culture of long hours, competition and over-ambition and the expense of others. A workplace which is tolerant of a wide variety of style differences, decision making attitudes and approaches will also benefit men and other under-represented groups. Quotas can just fill organisations with women who replicate masculine attributes, is that the real aim?

PAConsulting’s ‘Girls Allowed’ report reframes the issues as a business and leadership issue not a gender issue, and in doing so it hits at the heart of positive organisational change not creating ‘a women’s problem’. They also point out that culture is underestimated as a natural driver for gender balance.

Once we switch our thinking from helping ‘poor women’ to seeing it as an ability to change cultures being a core management competency, the workplace will change for the better, for all.

Men and women (and individuals) process things differently, why wouldn’t we want the benefit of different approaches, attitudes and experiences to improve the way we work? Organisations have problems with spotting talented women, rather than women have a problem with rising through the ranks. Even organisations traditionally female orientated lack female leadership, McKinsey found that consumer goods companies have 50% female employment but only 9% at executive level, whereas energy had 25% overall and 11% in executive roles. Traditionally women unfriendly organisations know they have a problem and are doing more to cash in on the benefits of women in the workplace and in leadership. Seeing diversity as a gender issue means organisations can avoid the bigger picture and can continue to not address issues which affect their culture, such as parental leave, care responsibilities and flexible working which benefit all. They can continue to rely on the solution of the ‘other’ continuing to push networks and hollow quotas as the way they tackle the problem of women in the workplace. If we are aiming for a world where our children don’t comprehend the issue then culture has to change, I long for the day that there is not International Women’s day, because that’s when we have succeeded in being an inclusive, equal society, until then we need to ensure we push for the right, positive solutions.

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