Gender discrimination at work? An insiders view..

You do not have to look far to see the forces of gender discrimination at play. From disparity in pay structures to a lack of balance at senior levels in many companies, the evidence is clear. Why is this and what can women and men do to address the problem?

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I have had the pleasure of working with many talented leaders over the years, both male and female. As an ex headhunter and now coach and mentor I have been close to the debate about gender inequality for some time and have seen the forces play out many times. This is what I have learned.

Firstly, whilst I have worked with many male leaders with strong emotional intelligence and some female leaders whose E I is apparently low, my first insight is that females often demonstrate more overtly well developed emotional intelligence and are often better listeners too. It is why so often when presenting a shortlist for a senior position in my previous role as a headhunter, my instinct that the female on the shortlist would win out often proved to be correct. Females often understand the complexity of people and relationships more effortlessly and instinctively and it is one of the reasons for a high female representation in 'people' professions such as HR. and coaching for that matter.

Whether you accept my point or not (and I certainly cannot prove it), the obvious question is why are there not more females on boards and executive leadership teams? The aggregate percentage of females on FTSE 100 boards is less than a quarter, and the number of female CEO’s in large global corporations is closer to 5% , in spite of various initiatives to redress the balance. These ratio's are better in smaller businesses but the lack of balance is still there.

There are many societal reasons for this, which in no particular order include male-dominated business cultures, some women’s reluctance to return to work after having children, and gender stereotyping which is sometimes overt but more often unconscious and therefore more difficult to identify. One thing which is clear to me is that both men and women need to take responsibility if the problems are to be properly addressed.

Peninah Thomson in her work, ‘Women and the New Business Leadership’, articulates the view that women are more independently minded and therefore less likely to tow the line or agree unconditionally with senior leaders. For Thomson male dominated boards are often characterised by ‘groupthink’ and males are more likely to play this game. I have certainly seen how an unwillingness to consent automatically to the CEO’s diktat can hold senior females back. The irony, and in my opinion the cost to business enterprises, is that it is precisely this independence of thought which is most needed in the majority of boardrooms. CBI President Sir Roger Carr put it like this:

‘Greater diversity improves atmospherics, dynamics and decision-making ... businesses can only secure the best available individuals if they look at the widest pool of candidates.

In other words a better balance of male and female, yin and yang, makes businesses more effective and more fun to work in. This makes the imbalance seem not only illogical, but also dysfunctional.

To compound the problem, a higher proportion of female CEO’s have been removed from their positions in the last ten years (38%) relative to their male counterparts (27%), according a report from Strategy& (formerly Booze and Company). One explanation, and the one favoured in this review is the ‘glass precipice’ factor, which suggests that because statistically more female CEO’s are appointed externally, they do not benefit from the networks, knowledge and political protection which their male counterparts inherit, by virtue of being appointed internally more often. Companies are more likely to appoint externally when already in distress situations, thereby shortening the odds for females still further.

The old boys network, like its cousin the class system, is an enduring club and one which does not serve the interests of society as a whole. Women of course need to take action themselves and there are plenty of positive role models to inspire.

However, for some females the enemy also lies within and may be expressed in the form of a lack of confidence when presented with leadership opportunities. These individuals may be more inclined to find reasons not to take on a particular challenge or to identify areas they do not feel qualified to tackle. This could be described as humility of course but humility backed by undue caution is not always a good thing. In leadership contests, confidence with a touch of bravado, will go a long way!

If you are an ambitious female who experiences this tension, then finding a good coach and mentor may help you to work through it and to overcome it more quickly and effectively than trying to do it on your own.

Self- belief, determination and the leadership qualities outlined in some of my previous articles are important, but not necessarily sufficient factors for success. Choosing the right business culture will be an important part of the mix and certain industries, such as Publishing for example have a far higher proportion of women in senior leadership positions. Not surprisingly, they also have a culture which is more conducive to success for ambitious women who want a career and a family. In more traditional industries such as the legal profession for example women have to work that much harder than their male counterparts to get promoted and then to survive. In spite of fine words and mission statements, these industries seem to reform themselves at a glacial rate and this will hurt them, as more talented females chose to leave.

There is no quick fix for these problems. The fewer women who make it to the boardroom and stay there, the less achievable equality and balance appears to be, and this is a difficult circle to square. The balance will only be redressed with the active, committed support of Chairman, Chief Executives, HR directors and others who influence hiring and promotion opportunities. Corporate and societal culture need to change and all of us, men and women have a part to play in this, through our attitudes to gender inequality as it exists today.

David Head

Coach and Mentor, Accelerating Experience

With twenty years experience in the search industry before becoming a coach, I combine highly personalised coaching and mentoring with broader commercial insight and perspective. I will help you to find your purpose, to thrive in your career and to change direction when this is what is needed. I will commit to helping you to achieve a state of flow by aligning values and purpose with what you do and how you do it. contact me via 07920 064056


Go to the profile of Lydia Kimmerling
almost 6 years ago
Hey David, that's a great post. I used to do female CEO leadership coaching for big corporations and a lot of the time the thing women got frustrated with was that to break the glass ceiling you had to be more like a man. Corporations forgot that you need the yin and the yang. Men and women have different strengths and both are important. Thanks for the reminder.
Go to the profile of David Head
almost 6 years ago
Such a good point Lydia- we can be who we were made to be at last.. thanks for the feedback.