fear factorI learned about an obstacle that keeps more women from reaching the top from this exchange. I was talking with a man (I’ll call him Mark) who had been CEO of a start-up company in which the “number two” person was a woman (I will call her Celeste). There was discussion of making Mark board chair and making Celeste CEO. Mark was struggling with this. Being an expert in “gender differences,” I asked him a series of questions of how Celeste tended to think about and do things, applying the “masculine-feminine continuum.”

There are 10 dimensions of this continuum, for example, how we structure things, talk, handle conflict and use humor. This instrument (which you can download from my website) shows differences in the masculine and feminine approach in each dimension. From Mark’s answers to my questions, it was clear that Celeste operated on the feminine side of the continuum. I explained to him that her approach was different from – not worse or better than – his more masculine approach.

He told me he was afraid. “Of what?” I asked. He explained, “I know it works the way I do it. I have never seen it work the way she does it. I am afraid it won’t turn out well.” He had a financial stake in this company and truly feared for his investment.

Much is written about the different work and leadership styles of men and women. One obstacle to getting more women at the top is that we are all used to seeing white males at the top. We have images of how success and leadership look. If someone looks like those we see at the top, they are more likely to be thought of when career-making assignments and promotions come up. Those who do not “look the part” may not come to mind. This is an obstacle that I call “unconscious images” or preferences.

I already knew that leaders may not think of women because they do not look the part. What I learned from Mark is that they may actually fear giving big assignments and promotions to a woman. They have a harder time envisioning her succeeding. And they may fear that her different approach will not get as good a result as the more common (masculine) approach.

I did not judge Mark for being reluctant to embrace and trust a different style of leadership. I had yet to explain to him the strengths (and limitations) of each approach. My book and blogs explore the strengths of both and why businesses do better when they have a balance of the two. When leaders (men and women) understand and appreciate both masculine and feminine ways of working and leading, the “fear factor” should be reduced. They may feel there is a basis for taking a risk — and give her a chance!

Have you ever seen people not only judge, but actually fear, a way of doing things different from their own way? How would you go about reducing this “fear factor”?

Millenials genderWill Millennials make issues like the “glass ceiling” obsolete? Said differently, are obstacles for women in the workplace likely to disappear when Millennials run the world? And said yet differently, is gender bias absent in the youngest generation in today’s workplace?

Now, it’s still a few years until Millennials take over leadership of U.S. business – so I’m not out of a job yet. (My job is working to create workplaces where both men and women can lead and succeed.) But I am curious about whether my mission will be accomplished simply by the passage of time. And I am working on an article on the generational roots of some of the obstacles facing women in today’s workplace.

Depending on which expert you ask, Millennials were born approximately 1980 to 2000, so they are now in their teens through their early 30’s. Big changes in family dynamics and gender expectations have occurred since Baby Boomers were young. Millennials were raised by attentive Gen X parents; they hadn’t been born when the last feminist movement occurred. They grew up with working, professional mothers. Their fathers didn’t call it “baby sitting” when they took care of the children. Dad could cook and do housework – maybe more than Mom. Some had bread-winner Moms and stay-at-home Dads.

Millennials grew up playing with the opposite sex, from play dates to group dates. Millennial boys competed with girls in school. As men, they have competed with women for jobs and have had women bosses. They have seen four women Supreme Court Justices and more women than men Secretaries of State (they may think it odd that John Kerry can serve that position). Of course, a woman can run for President!

In our workshops, we address the unconscious “mind-sets” that still affect women’s ability to reach their potential. We are often asked if these issues are disappearing in the younger generations in today’s workforce. Do young people truly have a less “gendered” view of leadership qualities? Will their images of leadership and success be less predictably masculine? Do they lack the confusion about how women do and “should” lead that has led to the “double bind”? Will the “comfort principle” disappear because Millennials managers and bosses feel comfortable with women peers and subordinates?

I am hopeful. Are you? What do you see changing for women as Millennials gain more influence in the business world?

diverse boardsIt depends on which study you read.

I talk a lot about the “business case” for gender diversity in leadership. I have been looking at studies challenging a primary pillar of the business case — the research showing a correlation between gender diversity on boards of directors and better financial returns. What are the facts?

The research demonstrating the bottom line payoff of having women and men in leadership is well known. What I’ll call the “Base Case” includes a Catalyst study showing companies with the most women directors outperform those with the least on ROIC by 26%. The Base Case includes several McKinsey & Company’s studies titled Women Matter, which show that “companies where women are most strongly represented at board or top-management level are also the companies that perform best.” Other studies include Credit Suisse research showing that companies with women on their boards have higher share price and numerous university studies.

A recent piece in The Economist cites research said to challenge the Base Case. The author (I’m guessing it is a man because the opening line sounds a little peeved that women are getting so many plum CEO jobs) sets out to show that women CEO’s will run companies no better than men. His point is about whether (or not) there are differences in how men and women lead — not whether gender diversity is good for business. But he conflates the two issues. In arguing that having a woman CEO will not necessarily benefit the bottom line (I agree), he cites some studies that, he says, “cast doubt” on the Base Case — as it relates to board representation.

The Economist piece confuses an important point. Companies with gender diversity don’t do better because women CEO’s (or women at any level) lead differently or better. They do better because they have diverse perspectives – both masculine and feminine strengths. But the article caused me to look at the studies cited regarding the Base Case.

One of these studies focused on the impact of gender diversity on group performance and found “no overall effect.” Two focused on Norway, where companies were mandated to have 40% of board seats go to women. Apparently there was a decline in profits of the Norwegian companies after this mandate, which the author ascribes to the presence of women directors. He is not clear how he found causation. (Neither the studies in the Base Case nor the contrary studies do — or could — show a causal connection between the gender composition of boards and positive or negative performance. There are too many other variables.)

The Economist author cites a 2008 paper by economists Adams and Ferreira for the conclusion that “The average effect of gender diversity on firm performance is negative.” That study confirms a correlation between gender diversity and both “firm value” and operating performance but proceeds to chip away at the correlation by pointing to other variables and “reverse causality.”

In a 2013 article in the Atlantic, Christina Sommers makes the point about causality. Referring to the studies by Catalyst and McKinsey, she notes, “neither study has established causation: More female directors could be a consequence, rather than a cause, of business success.” Sommers refers to the Adams and Ferreira study (above) and two other studies that lead her to caution that we not “oversell the financial benefits of having women on corporate boards”:

  • The 2010 work of Deborah Rhode and Amanda Packel at Stanford University’s Center on the Legal Profession, which concludes that “The relationship between diversity and financial performance has not been convincingly established.”
  • The 2012 study by business professors from Stanford and the University of Edinburgh, who found “no evidence that adding women outsiders to the board enhances corporate performance.”

Do the types of companies studied vary from those in the Base Case studies? Do the studies distinguish between companies with a single woman director and companies with more? (The Adams/Ferreira study notes that a single (token) woman director may be under greater pressure and so underperform. Catalyst found that “three or more may be the charm.”)

I hope researchers at Catalyst and McKinsey will help us sort through all of this.

Will I still rely on the Base Case? Here is what I’ll say about the business case for gender diversity: “Solid research by highly respected organizations, disputed by some, shows a correlation between gender diversity and results.” Sound fair?

Can you help sort out what leads these studies to different results?


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