According to the BBC less than a third of top jobs in this country are held by women and recent research by NYU and University of Utah finds that senior men with wives who don’t work outside the home generally see women as “unsuited (sic) to the corporate world”. Surprised? No, neither am I. Interested?
Did I hear you groan?
Women again! It’s always women. ”Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” as Rex Harrison mused in My Fair Lady – and just get on with stuff instead of thinking about it all the time? Why do women need special studies about them? If they’re good, they rise to the top, just the way guys do, right? Well, not quite.
The perceived value of something – or someone – has a lot to do with context – ask any marketer. Take smoking. When I was 18 I went to university and started smoking. Why? Because it was cool. Because I saw people I thought were cool doing it. Serious philosophical points were made between deep draws on a Benson’s and gulps of cheap Hirondelle wine. I was living the dream.
Seeing small groups of shivering office-workers huddled down the side-alley of their block has a different effect. Smoking doesn’t look cool now. It looks sad and desperate. As a result fewer young people will take it up. It might take a while for that change to appear in the health stats, but without a doubt the nation’s health will improve. Why? Just by changing the context.
So what’s all this got to do with women?
Where do the men in the American study most often see and hear women? In the home, where their conversations are going to be based on a whole different set of priorities than the guys at work. In this context it’s easy to perceive women as being only interested in (or even capable of solving) small-scale problems such as getting the car fixed or booking the holiday.
It’s only by doing such studies that we realise that one person’s ‘common sense’ is very different from another’s. What we take for granted as obvious depends a lot on what we see and where they see it. And it’s only when we are confronted by such stats that we can understand why women might find it difficult to advance to the highest levels – where many of their peers will probably still have wives who stay home.
Once we understand this, we can put structures in place to overcome the bias of ‘common sense’. And once those structures start bringing women routinely into boardrooms the newer generation of male board members will see women in a context which allows them to be perceived as powerful and intelligent. The interim years will be awkward and often appear forced and unfair. But the result is that level playing field we all talk about so fondly – well guys who play football do anyway.
So now is the time to stub out that cigarette and get more women on your board. Otherwise your company is going to look seriously out in the cold soon.
Joni Farthing is festival director of Women Outside The Box, which launches in Bristol on October 8