Every woman I know who has climbed the corporate ladder has stories to tell about the highest rungs, where men remain in the majority.

I thought hard about my own experiences after reading New York Times senior correspondent Susan Chira’s feature about why there are so few female CEOs. While bolstered by statistics, the article was based substantially on the personal insights of high-ranking women who did not quite reach the top. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/sunday-review/women-ceos- glass-ceiling.

The secondary headline of the article affirmed: “It’s not a pipeline problem. It’s about loneliness, competition and deeply rooted barriers.”

I would have added “culture.” It’s also about trying to do business in cultures designed primarily to welcome alpha males or those who successfully replicate alpha-male behaviour. If you are not an alpha male in that environment, you face a culture clash. This applies not only to women, but to minorities and, to varying degrees, the wide range of non-alpha males.

Bias is not necessarily overt. If you happen to be a tall male, you benefit from what author Malcolm Gladwell calls “unconscious prejudice,” and generally earn more money than equally qualified short men. Fortune 500 CEOs are overwhelmingly white men and 50 per cent are over 6 feet tall. Among Gladwell’s sample of top American CEOs, 30 percent were 6’2’’ or taller – in a nation in which only four percent of the population reach that height. http://gladwell.com/blink/why-do-we- love-tall-men/

Tall men, alpha men, occupy space, certainly more space than the average woman or many men from certain ethnic communities. Occupying space and asserting yourself with open and expansive gestures are among the top nonverbal expressions of power, says Harvard Business School social psychologist Amy Cuddy.

She and her colleagues tested the notion of “fake-it- until-you-make-it” by adopting stereotypical power poses. Such poses, they found, help you get a job, win a contract, improve performance during a concert or a speech. What remains unclear is how far you can take it – or fake it. Research continues. https://richtopia.com/women-leaders/amy-cuddy- body-language

Had I known about power poses a decade ago, it might have helped but wouldn’t have averted the most troubling difficulties. These arose from a workplace culture which welcomed alpha males and remained indifferent to female sensibility.

I wasn’t invited to play golf with the men I worked with, or for, or supervised. Nor was I invited to join the guys for after-work drinks. All those regular informal occasions where information is exchanged and bonds are formed weren’t generally open to me or my female colleagues.

One exception to the prohibition on co-ed bonding occurred on out-of- town trips, when everyone generally had dinner together.

Such was the case a couple of decades ago, when I was a senior executive in a multinational firm and working with an R&D team located in an outlying region. The host executive was probably a bit below my pay grade and not much older. After dinner, the host said he had to go home but would take us (myself and two senior consultants from the U.S.) somewhere where we could have drinks before returning to our hotel. I thought: great.

He dropped us off at a strip club.

I don’t know if I was “invisible” to him or deemed inconsequential in the power culture of the time. Possibly he was delusional enough to suppose that he was paying me a compliment by including me in this quintessentially male pastime.

Much has changed since then but alpha-male culture continues to poison the C-suite.

Over the past few months, I’ve had numerous conversations with women who were in CEO or C-suite positions at multi-billion-dollar companies. Each spoke about her discomfort with the overriding cultures of their organizations.  Some are choosing to “fight the good fight” for five to eight years; others are looking to retire.  But the bulk of them want to shift their environments—to create or find cultures in which they feel they can make the greatest impact.

The data I subsequently found supported those personal disclosures. Recent research reveals that even women who make it to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder often feel uncomfortable and question the value of their careers.

Larry Cash and Susan Van Klink of SuccessFinder™ analyzed 200 male and female CEOs to measure behavior and performance under the broad rubrics of Problem-Solving Style, Self-Assessment and Human Relations. Wide in scope, the study assessed many traits including intellect, political acumen, decision-making, stamina and innovation — all critical competencies for CEOs.

They concluded that the women CEOs surpassed their male colleagues by 10 percent in intelligence and were essentially in step with them on matters such work ethic and motivation.

What distinguished the women in the study was their inner belief systems, not their competence. Women underperformed men by about 10 percent in self-confidence and self-respect. Cash linked this finding to “the imposter syndrome,” a phenomenon that dates back to the 1970s and describes women who feel they aren’t worthy of, or ready for, a senior role.

Strikingly, today’s female CEOs also expressed a greater fear of success. The women’s responses reflected a belief that success at the highest level would be too costly in terms of their own values and that the rewards would not offset the negative consequences, which largely revolved around the notion of collaboration and teamwork.

“Success” as it is currently framed in the C-Suite is seen by some women as exacting a price they are unwilling to pay. And, as shown so vividly in the NYT’s article and my own interviews, those top candidates will take their skills elsewhere. Something must shift if corporations are to benefit fully from the contributions of highly competent women already within their ranks.  And that shift revolves around culture change.

 

 

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