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Thirty middle managers, men and women, had gathered for an off-site meeting to discuss their company’s new diversity programme. The facilitator began by asking them to give their respective thoughts on what it was like being a man or a woman working for the company.

The women soon began writing furiously. The men looked puzzled. The facilitator asked if there was a problem. “I’m sorry,” one of the men replied, “but I’m not sure I understand the question.”

This story, told in a new book about women in top corporate roles, illustrates how female executives often still feel like outsiders in large companies that have been shaped by men and that unconsciously perpetuate masculine attitudes to ambition, careers and life at work.

For years, discussion about gender equality in the workplace has centred on child-rearing and the need for greater flexibility in work schedules. While women have made big inroads into corporate life, they remain few and far between in senior management and on the boards of most large businesses. Now researchers, business schools and employers are trying to understand the hidden barriers that prevent or dissuade women, or put women off,women from participating at the very top.

“The few women who do manage to reach the top of large companies often feel abraded by the cultures they find there,” argue Peninah Thomson and Jacey Graham in A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom, to be published on Friday. “Women just below the board, who look up at the tip of the management pyramid, often decide not to participate, because the price they will have to pay seems too great.”

In an attempt to break the mould, the authors, who have worked for large organisations including Nato, PwC, Shell and Lloyds TSB, have set up an unusual programme in which FTSE 100 chairmen and chief executives mentor aspiring female directors in other companies. Their argument, apparently shared by many of the corporate leaders they quote, is that big business is losing out both in terms of both competition and governance by having so little female talent and perspective at the top.

The statistics are stark. Women account for fewer than 14 per cent of Fortune 500 directors and 10 per cent of FTSE 100 directors. In the biggest west European companies, women account for eight per cent of board directors and just five per cent of top managers, the layer from which future directors are most likely to be drawn.

US research reveals a hefty dropout rate among highly qualified women. Thirty-seven per cent have left work voluntarily, according to a study led by the Center for Work-Life ­Policy. Dissatisfaction or lack of opportunity are more important than family responsibilities in driving women to quit corporate life – and none of the women who worked in business wants to return to their former companies.

What are the hidden barriers that persist in the upper echelons of big companies, and how can they be tackled? According to Ms Thomson and Ms Graham, senior women can experience countless “micro-inequities”, each of which appears trivial but which add up to a frustrating work environment. These include being interrupted or not listened to at meetings, left off distribution lists circulated to male colleagues, or asked to attend team-building events that are inappropriate, such as quad-bike racing, or awkwardly timed, such as Saturday morning golf.

Some women have encountered excluding behaviour so often that they have devised their own responses. “Do you know,” one sweetly tells male colleagues who steal her thunder at meetings, “I totally agree. My idea sounds so much better ­coming from you.”

The authors argue that women should not be left to tackle these subtle injustices alone. “Taken together, they are probably the most corrosive form of discrimination in modern organisations,” they say. “They need to be exposed and flushed out of the culture.”

This will not be easy. Most large companies like to see themselves as open and meritocratic. Discussing gender differences may be seen as resurrecting outdated stereotypes. It needs to be handled carefully and without apportioning blame.

Nonetheless, there is a strong sense among senior women that the rules are different for them. More than two-thirds of female directors and senior managers feel they are not recognised or promoted on an equal basis to men, according to a survey to be published on Wednesday by Eve-olution, a UK diversity consultancy. Is this because selection, promotion, performance measurement and “competence frameworks” are still based on male models of leadership that prize ambition, competitiveness and risk-taking?

Sylvia Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, says that “extreme” jobs at the top of multinational companies will become even more the preserve of white, upper middle-class men with stay-at-home wives unless something imaginative is done to address the 24-hour client pressure and intense travel demands.

One solution is for companies to give executives with caring responsibilities much longer notice of overseas assignments, allowing them time to re-organise “the other pieces in their lives”. Client-driven businesses such as investment banks and management consultancies should make a practice of reducing the client burden for individuals with family commitments. Such measures, she says, could halt “the revolving door of professionals forced to quit because they’re not coping”.

Business schools are joining the hunt for solutions. Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, plans a flexible executive education programme for highly qualified women wanting to re-enter the workforce after a career break. Companies that participate must commit themselves to redesigning careers to fit the skills and needs of returning professionals.

London Business School is considering similar executive programmes and planning research into what holds women back and what carries them forward. Laura Tyson, dean of LBS, says her best mentors have been men because “they understand the implicit rules”.

Do women, by their own behaviour, sometimes rule themselves out of the top game? This is one of the questions that Ms Thomson and Ms Graham explore in their extensive interviews with chairmen, current and aspiring female directors, and headhunters. Ms Thomson and Ms Graham’s answer is They conclude that women’s dislike of organisational politics creates a bias in favour of men. They note that some women lose confidence the higher they rise and the more isolated they become from other women. They cite headhunters who say women seem less confident because they are more honest about their weaknesses, while men talk only about their strengths.

The difficult question for senior women is how much they should change to fit the dominant culture. Companies claim to value the distinctive traits that women bring to the board or to top management.

But as one American woman vice-president puts it: “To get to the top level you need a killer instinct. I don’t want to be so aggressive that I leave dead bodies along the way. I don’t want to lose my values. This shouldn’t be the only way.”

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