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February 20, 2013 11:13 pm
Many women executives might wish that dress code, body language and the ability to banter with the boys no longer matter – but they know from experience that they often do.
“It’s less of an issue than it used to be,” says Fiona O’Hara, Accenture’s managing director for human capital and diversity in the UK and Ireland. “As more women progress through to the executive level, there’s safety in numbers and the culture changes when there’s a diverse team.
“But bias is still there. People have to stay true to themselves and if they’re comfortable with the banter, great. If not, call time and walk away or call someone out. And while dress code isn’t a problem at our company, on the Tube I’m amazed what women wear in terms of revealing clothing – but maybe I’m conservative.”
A great deal of research has been conducted on the role of unconscious bias in terms of promotion and more companies are aware of the need to combat it. But culture takes time to change and many women have had to create their own coping strategies.
“Men use humour and put-downs while women look for similarities and empathy and are more likely to draw people up, not put them down,” says Karen Gill, co-founder of Everywoman, the organisation for women in business.
“The differences can be very subtle and make us feel less resilient and gung ho. Look at body language. We don’t puff out our chests for obvious reasons, are often round-shouldered and introverted. Men are more likely to be upright and military looking and that’s what many people are looking for in leadership.”
Wendy Alexander, former Scottish Labour leader and now the London Business School’s associate dean of degree programmes and career services, says that although “we’re past the stage where we need to learn to play golf”, too often women are not on top of their own agenda.
During her political career, she was often described as “outspoken” – often code for unfeminine behaviour: “The challenges are surmountable and there are more similarities than differences between men and women.
“Yes, women are less likely to negotiate but there are ways women can equip themselves and there are immeasurably more opportunities than in the past because companies, post-financial crisis, value diversity.”
Heather Jackson, chief executive of An Inspirational Journey, an organisation that aims to increase the number of women in senior positions, is passionate in urging women to go forward: “Take away your shyness. No one can go forward by being shy, it’s not a leadership word. You don’t have to be gung ho and you can do things sensibly and intelligently,” she says. “Visibility and responsibility are the key words.”
It can take time to find a style and approach that works. Anna-Marie Detert, talent proposition lead director at KPMG, says: “I remember when I wouldn’t wear a dress because I was terrified of seeming too female. But I’ve found my way now and that means being a little softer, connecting personally and being ‘others-focused’ but not subservient.”
Fiona Czerniawska, co-founder of the Source for Consulting research company, says she never pretended to be one of the boys: “I’ve never been into football and it made me feel excluded. I can do weather but sport is divisive,” she says. “I’ve found myself thinking, ‘I’m an expert so I’ll blast them with my expertise’.
“As for dress, I would defend someone’s right to wear what they want and we should have moved beyond that but I don’t feel comfortable in a low-cut top or short dress.”
While many women want to move away from clichés about being more caring and emotionally intelligent than men, it might be some time before there are enough female executives on boards and in positions to hire more women like them.
“It might take quotas as a temporary measure to help get women into positions where they can recruit others after them,” says Ines Wichert, senior psychologist at the Kenexa High Performance Institute. “It’s about creating real opportunities.”
Some companies offer help. Accenture, for example, has a Skills Academy and a course, called “Move Beyond the Boys Club (Shameless Self-Promotion)”, that says career progression, especially in male-dominated fields, is a blend of aptitude and attitude, manoeuvrability, understanding office politics, allied to self-awareness and confidence.
It says: “Women who get ahead are those who make key decision-makers aware of their wins. When you work with men, you have to learn to play the game and get comfortable raising your profile the way they do – we should take the best of what they can teach us while maintaining a sense of our own integrity, individuality and independence.”
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