Friday, November 02, 2007

Catch-22 For Women In Management And How To Solve It.

Lisa Belkin's recent NYT column summarizes a lot of new evidence on that old dilemma: How to be a successful woman manager. The new evidence is as gloomy as the old evidence. It's ultimately what is between your legs which determines how people react to you at work:

Catalyst's research is often an exploration of why, 30 years after women entered the work force in large numbers, the default mental image of a leader is still male. Most recent is the report titled "Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don't," which surveyed 1,231 senior executives from the United States and Europe. It found that women who act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes — defined as focusing "on work relationships" and expressing "concern for other people's perspectives" — are considered less competent. But if they act in ways that are seen as more "male" — like "act assertively, focus on work task, display ambition" — they are seen as "too tough" and "unfeminine."

Women can't win.

In 2006, Catalyst looked at stereotypes across cultures (surveying 935 alumni of the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland) and found that while the view of an ideal leader varied from place to place — in some regions the ideal leader was a team builder, in others the most valued skill was problem-solving. But whatever was most valued, women were seen as lacking it.

It's useful to remember that differential assessments of male and female managers don't mean that all women are rated lower than all men or that there aren't women who are viewed as fantastic managers by almost everyone. Still, these research results are depressing, because they suggest that the differential assessments are caused by that old-fashioned sexism, only slightly covered up with something else to hide it.

Belkin points out that the problem she discusses isn't really something the female managers can solve by just trying harder or taking the correct acting lessons. The problem is one for the corporate culture, even the wider culture out there. Indeed, Catalyst's next project is to advise corporations on how to avoid the stereotype bias.

That's very nice, but I doubt it will make much difference. What will, however, make a difference in the long run is to have more and more women in management. Virginia Valian (in Why So Slow) notes that evaluations of female and male employees in a particular job category tend to use a gendered basis unless the relative numbers of men and women in the job are fairly even. It's not necessary to have exactly as many women as men for this to work. Even something like at least 30% of women in a particular job category changes the rating base to a non-gendered one.

In a sense, the problem Belkin describes is a circular one. If women are viewed as incompetent outsiders in management it is because there are too few women in that occupation. Having more female managers would solve this problem. But if women are viewed as incompetent outsiders in management, how are we going to get more women in the field?