Thursday 29 September 2016

Women's soft power could benefit firms

Far from being a weakness, females' empathy beats macho posturing and is, in fact, a corporate strength, says Judith Woods

Judith Woods

Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30

Emotional: Female workers are failing to jostle for supremacy the way men do, studies
show, and they also face ‘higher standards and lower rewards’
Emotional: Female workers are failing to jostle for supremacy the way men do, studies show, and they also face ‘higher standards and lower rewards’

Another week, another exasperated study revealing why women aren't thriving in the workplace: internecine warfare.

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This time, the Sisterhood stands accused of sulking, briefing against one another in the loos, and slyly cutting the handles off their colleague's new Coach Swagger before her keynote presentation.

I paraphrase, but the gist of the paper by UCL School of Management, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is that women don't like competing with one another for promotion.

Whereas men view competition and hierarchy as an accepted part of life, "female peer culture" is predicated on harmony, equality and collaboration.

As a result, women hold back for fear of damaging relationships with female colleagues and when pitted against one another, instead of taking it on the chin like square-jawed gladiators, they take it personally and crumple.

The implication is that they are in the wrong, that their priorities are skewed and they are sabotaging their own progress by getting too emotional.

In a nutshell, women are signally failing to jostle for supremacy the way men do. Which, it goes without saying, is the right way to achieve something, as men have been ignominiously scrapping for power since time immemorial.

No mention is made of the fact that women are relative newcomers to the corporate workplace and maybe, their revolutionary collegiate style is a benefit.

A report last year from accountants Grant Thornton revealed companies in the UK, US and India performed better with at least one female executive on the board.

In her 2013 book, Lean In, Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg discusses "The Double Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don't".

Dismally, women leaders in Western nations are widely perceived as "too soft or too tough", face "higher standards and lower rewards" and are regarded as "either competent or likeable, but never both".

Their strong tendency to nurture friendships in a work environment also comes at a cost; for women, trust and intimacy are powerful social currencies.

A female boss who refuses to engage with them or does so only intermittently is viewed with distrust, hence a US survey by Gallup in 2014 showed that 40pc of women would prefer a male boss as they are more "straightforward".

Now, I work from home and I'm not the boss of anyone (just ask my semi-feral children), so the nearest equivalent to a complex group dynamic comprising both seen and unseen power structures is, ahem, a camping trip.

As this is a fairly lame example, let's rebrand it as a team-building exercise. My family joins up with several others to go camping at various points throughout the summer. It's terribly relaxed and no-frills.

On these outings, the blokes would doubtless classify me as alpha, which is to say I am opinionated, shrieky and apparently assertive (the giveaway is the "apparently").

This is because when it comes to chaps, I have no problem with seizing the initiative, making demands and saying things like: "Here's an idea: if you stopped loafing about, jumped in the car and fetched bread, we might not eat you for breakfast."

And their wives? They publicly rate me as a Beta (but one tipsily confided that I'm lucky to make a Beta-minus). This is because in female company, I tend to hold back, scrupulously seek consensus and fight shy of confrontation in case - deep breath - They Hate Me.

Yes, in a sun-dappled Sussex meadow with friends, I still baulk at being perceived as bossy or overbearing and as a result I am relegated ­- no, that's not true, I very much relegate myself - to the role of meek bottle-washer and veg-chopper and wood-fetcher.

Quite simply, I choose not to clash. Partly because I don't see the point of frittering the emotional energy, and partly because it makes far more sense to roll my eyes and collaborate (get the job done) than compete (lord it over everybody).

I might complain melodramatically about my enslavement, but crucially, I always do still comply with the Alpha-female's orders because, unlike the menfolk, my self-esteem does not rest on whose turn it is to burn the sausages on the barbecue.

Oh, and let's not forget if I were to seize power (aka decide what we eat, when and how long the wine needs to be chilled in the river), I'm scared They Might Hate Me. The cause isn't spinelessness, it's evolutionary.

From the earliest communities, women have survived by making horizontal connections, forging alliances and grafting together. You can see it in action at the school gates. The outsiders, such as the high-flying mother who manages to escape the boardroom and pick up once a week, sees a daunting clique.

The insiders, who are there most days, see a close-knit circle built on trust and mutual childcare crises. In an emergency, mothers will help those they like the most, those who have put in the hours of bonding. When her meeting runs late, the high-flier has nobody to rely on; it's the brutality of natural selection, but it clips her wings none the less.

Women are, by agreement, the more emotionally intelligent gender, but although much is made of "soft power" on the world stage, its value has not yet permeated downwards.

What madness to infer that a female employee's ability to empathise is a personal weakness, when it's actually a corporate strength.

Woe betide the organisation that fails to recognise it, or grasp that pitting staff against one another is as macho, outdated and wasteful as setting gladiators in the ring.

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