Thursday, 26 June 2008

Amazons or eye candy?

As I sat in the air conditioned comfort of a condo in hot, steamy Washington DC, reading in the New York Times about the decision of the US Army to break tradition in order to allow a woman to reach the top (see Thinking out of a five sided box), I was reminded that Spain has also recognised women as top warriors.

The line-up of the Spanish Cabinet announced by Zapatero not only showed women out-numbering the men (nine female ministers out of 17) but also the appointment of heavily pregnant Carme Chacon as Minister of Defence. She immediately pledged to boost the number of women in Spain's armed forces, which first allowed female members in 1988.

Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, consolidates her position as Deputy Prime Minister with increased responsibilities and Magdalena Alvarez continues at Public Works with the challenge of solving Catalonia's water crisis.

In France too, Prime Minister Sarkozy has feminised his ministerial line-up, with the appointment of 11 women in the 33-member administration, including seven out of 16 Cabinet ministers and three of the top five most senior positions. Christine Lagarde, head of US law firm Baker Mackenzie becomes the first woman to become Finance Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie is Interior Minister and Justice Minister is the outspoken Muslim, Rachida Dati.

The reaction to the Zapatero appointments has been revealing. Italy’s Sylvio Berlusconi announced that Spain’s cabinet was ‘too pink’ and that there would difficulties in leading them. A telling comment from someone who is famous for his enjoyment of women’s company – and who has four women in his cabinet including a former topless model. Presumably this sort of occupation make women more accommodating when it comes to making important decisions than, say, an economist or four-star general.

As for the UK, the focus was sartorial rather than political, with much admiration for the elegance and grooming of the Spanish and French cabinet. One after another, national newspaper commentators drew unflattering comparisons with the dress sense of British female politicians –The women of Dowdy Street being a particularly popular headline.

What a pity the opportunity was missed to identify the skills and attributes of women making it to the top in politics, by the celebrity focus on frocks and hairstyles. Moreover, glasshouses and stones came into my mind, as I recall how often I am shocked by the singularly scruffy appearance of many women journalists (and I am speaking as someone who spent several years as one, including a stint in the fashion industry).

My view is that women and men should be properly dressed for their work. Being smart, appropriate and well groomed is a must for those are running affairs of state. It is good to see that now he is Prime Minister rather than Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown no longer insists on wearing a brown lounge suit to attend white tie dinners at the Mansion House, an unnecessarily distracting affectation.

At the other end of the working life spectrum, it is still difficult for women working in construction to obtain easily the right size clothing, particularly boots and protective wear. Presumably with General Anne Dunwoody organising equipment for the Pentagon this will not be a problem for the women soldiers in the US Army.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Thinking out of a five sided box

In an extraordinary break from US army tradition, President Bush has nominated a woman for promotion to the rank of full, four-star general. Historically the route to the top has required service in combat roles but the Pentagon has chosen to cast aside this customary limitation to allow General Ann E Dunwoody to reach the height of her career.

One of only two women with three stars in the US Army - the other is Lt Gen Kathleen Gainey, director of logistics on the Joint Staff – General Dunwoody will head Army Materiel Command, responsible for equipping, outfitting and arming soldiers throughout the army.

Defence Secretary Robert M Gates says of Dunwoody, “Her 33 years of service, highlighted by extraordinary leadership and devotion to duty, make her exceptionally qualified for this senior position.”

The nomination requires confirmation by the US Senate. Let’s hope that this body takes the same enlightened view as the US Army.

The New York Times National
Tuesday 24 June 2008.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Not now darling - Sandi's six o'clock rule

An afternoon spent in the House of Lords today convinces me that Sandi's six o'clock rule deserves wider coverage than the passing mention in my blog Puckering up, posted on 31 March.

I was there in the beautiful Attlee Room to chair the Enterprising Women Forum, organised by the Pink Shoes Club's indefatigible Helene Martin Gee in association with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Entrepreneurship. After discussing micro-finance, compliance and wealth creation, debate moved towards managing male/female relationships in the workplace. One delegate commented about using feminity in the workplace, another on how difficult it was for young men to know the appropriate way to greet female colleagues.

So I shared my socio/business rule, developed after years of being the only woman in business meetings and in the boardroom.

Quite simply, before six pm I shake hands with men and women colleagues, fellow directors and clients. This means that meetings start on a businesslike and equitable footing for all. After six pm the continental greeting of a kiss on both cheeks is welcome from those whom I know well and with whom I have a friendly and social relationship. My male colleagues know what to do, those whom I have only just met do not feel they have been excluded. We all know where we stand - and we can get on with the business of business.

Women want opportunity, not coercion

In the latest book on the biological differences between men and women that may affect their progress in the world of work, clinical psychologist Susan Pinker argues that prenatal testosterone creates a 'wired-in' difference. She believes that this explains "why women are biologically driven to nurture their young rather than climb the corporate ladder."

Her arguments are strongly challenged in a review of her book that appeared in 5 April edition of the New Scientist. In her critique of The Sexual Paradox:troubled boys, gifted girls & the real difference between the sexes*, Durham University’s Anne Campbell challenges Pinker’s argument that even men suffering from conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome succeed in the world of work whereas privileged women fail.

Campbell questions Pinker’s definition of success, because it is based on the traditional male criteria of academic achievement, high salary, early promotion and corporate power. She also challenges Pinker’s determination to find an enemy, defined as those who are “insisting on a 50-50 gender split in all fields, ” and who are willing to tamper with human nature itself to achieve it.

This is old hat, thinks Campbell. She asserts that for some 20 years the focus has been on creating opportunities for women to study male-typical subjects and to work in previously male dominated fields. She says, “Giving women the change does not mean forcing them to take it, any more than it means debarring men from these fields."

*Atlantic Books, £12.99

Friday, 20 June 2008

Because we're worth it!

Two documents worth popping into the Chairman and CEO's in-trays: Room at the top: women and success in UK business and also Women Matter: gender diversity, a corporate performance driver.

As they have the clout of being produced by McKinsey & Company, there is the strong possibility that the impact will go beyond a superficial read. The nub of the argument is that studies demonstrate a correlation between greater gender diversity and better economic performance.The first found that companies with three or more women in senior management positions performed significantly better across nine organisational criteria than companies with fewer women at the top. And companies that scored higher on these organisational criteria also performed better financially,with operating margins twice as high as those of lower-ranked businesses.

This finding was reinforced by a second study,which looked at economic performance for European companies with a market capitalisation of over €150 million and found that those companies with an influential female presence on the executive committee outperformed their peers in terms of return on equity,operating margin and stock price growth.

Key recommendations are familiar to those agitating for change:
1. Put the right support in place. Companies need to recognise the value of coaching, mentoring, networking and training in retaining and expanding the female talent pool.

2. Facilitate a better work-life balance, through flexible working hours and career flexibility.

3. Adapt people management processes. Recruitment, appraisal and career management systems should facilitate the progression of high performing women and help companies to keep
their talent pipeline healthy.

4. Create transparency by introducing and monitoring gender diversity KPIs. These will define and direct priorities for action, and enable companies to measure progress.

5. Lead from the top. The leadership of the CEO and Chairperson is vital.

None of this is rocket science, but it's good to see some rigorous quantifying of the business case.