“Act like a man, but don’t show it!”
Dr Paul Vanderbroeck, executive coach, 20-First
BY PAUL VANDERBROECK
Top Managers in the Netherlands believe that the only way to reach the top for a woman is to act like a man without showing it. This is the stark conclusion of a piece of research carried out by a major newspaper in the Netherlands – de Volkskrant (March 6, 2009). The newspaper wanted to know why there are still so few women top managers in the Netherlands. To find out, 40 top managers were interviewed anonymously for this purpose.
The 40 were chosen from the list of the 200 most influential people in the Netherlands, which is produced by de Volkskrant every year. The latest list includes 32 women (16%), up from 29 in 2008. The most highly placed woman in the list – Agnes Jongerius, president of the country’s largest trade union – ranks sixth. She is also the first woman to have made it to the top ten. Women were also included among the 40 interviewees. The newspaper does not say how many. But let’s assume that it was also 16%, so it may have been around six or seven out of 40.
Profile of Top Businesswomen in the Netherlands
The 40 leaders agreed that the ideal profile for a top manager includes a mix of “female and male” qualities: self-reflection, empathy, interpersonal skills, decisiveness, and a clear vision. It is encouraging to read that they recognised that a mixture of male and female qualities adds value, showing that they appreciate what gender diversity can contribute to good leadership.
While none of the interviewees claims to know anyone – themselves included – who possesses all of those qualities, they are particularly disappointed with their experience with women. Top women, according to this poll, scored lower on self-reflection and empathy, competencies that women typically demonstrate strongly. They did, however, score highly on some of the not-so-helpful male behaviours such as status orientation, competitiveness, and short-term results orientation. Both the men and women interviewed agreed with this view. So the women in this group of 40 Dutch top managers also had a negative perception of their female peers. The result is that these senior managers currently are reluctant to recruit new women top managers.
“Top women, according to this poll, scored lower on self-reflection and empathy, competencies that women typically demonstrate strongly. They did, however, score highly on some of the not-so-helpful male behaviours such as status orientation, competitiveness, and short-term results orientation.”
What does this tell us? While the appreciation for diversity is a positive sign, it is surprising that these senior leaders believe that male and female qualities can be found in a single individual. That is very unlikely. If such individuals can be found, they are extremely rare. So in order to ensure that male and female qualities are present in the leadership team at the top, it would be wiser for organisations to ensure that they have a balanced mix of men and women in their senior management. A lack of diversity leads to group-think and poor decisions. As a matter of fact, the current financial crisis is a case in point. Too much uniformity in the composition of leadership has led to irresponsible risk taking and bad investment decisions.
Women Behaving Like Men
According to de Volkskrant, the rather disappointing perception of the qualities that senior women in management bring with them may be due to the fact that these women have tried to adapt and behave in a masculine way and thus have neutralised any of the complementary “feminine” qualities they have. From this starting point, the newspaper’s journalists have concluded that the problem is that managers in the Netherlands have (apparently) raised the bar unrealistically high for women, not that they have failed to encourage women to rise to the top with their feminine qualities intact.
Here are a few individual quotes from the interviews to underscore the point:
“Top managers like myself actively look for competent women, yet we cannot find any. I do not want to compromise on quality.”
“I would have loved to recruit a woman, but the man was obviously better. You have to be realistic.”
“Women drop out once they experience how irregular the work schedule of a top manager is. They are also less ambitious.”
“Women don’t want the top jobs. They believe they cannot handle it or are too busy with their private lives.”
In their infinite wisdom, these 40 Dutch top managers also have some recommendations for women who want to reach the top.
- Find a male role model
- Do have kids, because that shows stability
- Make sure you are available to work at least 60 hours per week
- Marry a guy without a career, so that he can take care of the kids
- Don’t take a career break to raise kids
- Keep a low profile, so as not to appear too ambitious and competitive.
Well, it seems that not only do Dutch top managers have unrealistically high expectations of their female colleagues. They also put them in a Catch-22 situation: in order to succeed they need to act like a man, yet they have to hide it! What are women to do? They are expected to be empathetic in business, but apparently not at home. Any signal that they are needed at home should be ignored; otherwise how can they be available 60 plus hours a week? How can a woman be expected to realise her ambitions if she cannot show her organisation what they are? She would need to rely on the good fortune of having a male manager with the female quality of empathy, so that he picks up on the signals she is hiding.
At best, the top 200 figures in the Netherlands have little experience of working with women managers and hence are ignorant of the realities. At worst, their expressed desire for more female top managers is paying mere lip service to the politically correct call for more women at the top. They certainly don’t seem to recognise the business case for encouraging women to be themselves when they get there. Nor do they seem to appreciate that the corporate culture needs to be gender bilingual to enable women to excel and feel motivated in equal proportion to men. Companies were created for a different age, before women became the majority of talent in the workforce. Those that have caught up with the 21st century are already creating radical new corporate cultures in which both male and female managers can be successful in leadership roles.
About the author
Dr Paul Vanderbroeck is an executive coach with the leading European gender consultancy 20-First and co-author of “Leading in the Top Team”. He lives in Geneva, Switzerland.
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