- Isabella Lenarduzzi

Can women really get ahead even if they do everything right?

This week I took part in a conference organised by Guberna (the Institute for Directors in Belgium) on the theme of gender quotas on the boards of directors to celebrate the launch of their interesting mentoring programme. That’s also where I heard some absurd declarations. Professor De Wulf from the University of Ghent seemed to suggest that chairmen of the boards are at least happy with the arrival of women as they are more disciplined (!) than men and tended to turn up more to meetings. While Professor De Vos (also of the University of Ghent) argued that quotas are illegal because discriminatory without being justified or necessary. Read here the opinion of Michèle Mees from The Centre for Balanced Leadership.

It would have been enough that these two eminent professors read up on the effects of the law on quotas in France to realise that in little over a year the number of women in boards of the CAC 40 has risen from 10 to 20% (already achieving levels set for 2014). Meanwhile in the UK, where quotas were refused but a recommendation by Lord Davies was adopted, the number of women on the boards of directors of UK FTSE- listed companies only increased from 12% to 14% in six months. This level is well under the effort required for the recommendation to be respected.

But it wasn’t only these two men who ruined my evening… while discussing my opinion with a friend, a female lawyer approached us explaining that she couldn’t understand why we were so shocked because if there was problem with women being under represented it was their own fault! To go against this type of prejudice, the latest study from Catalyst – “The myth of the ideal worker” – is essential reading.

More than 3 000 women and men who followed an MBA course were questioned for this study. The results are staggering:

  • The women questioned were as ambitious as the men
  • Women went for the same jobs and levels of responsibility as the men and used all the elements set out in the bestselling management books (e.g. networking, negotiation, self-marketing, understanding of the “unwritten rules”…)

That’s exactly what makes this so interesting and which sweeps aside the prejudices even if the analysis was based on a small category of women – those who had recently completed an MBA. It is the difference in the results obtained by women and men, who nevertheless adopt the same strategies, which are so surprising.

The study reveals that: men still outpace women in the rate at which their careers advance. Among those questioned, women’s salaries seemed to be performance related whereas men were paid on the basis of their potential. Nearly double the number of men reached senior leadership positions (21%) compared to women (only 11%).

In fact the study shows that even if women follow a traditional career path, “do all the right things”, adopt the same strategies as men, they are still unlikely to advance as far or earn as much as their male peers.

“This study busts the myth that ‘Women don’t ask.’ In fact, they do! But it doesn’t get them very far. Men, by contrast, don’t have to ask. What’s wrong with this picture? Just as individuals need to manage their careers effectively or risk lagging behind their peers, organisations must learn how to attract, develop, and retain high-potential women—or risk losing out to their competitors.” explained Ilene H. Lang, President & CEO, Catalyst in a press release.

So what can companies do? Catalyst suggests that corporate leaders ask: To what extent are employees in our organisations advanced and compensated based on strategic career tactics versus skills and performance? How are people being coached to get ahead? Are assumptions being made that what worked for men in the past will work for women? And when women and men apply the same career strategies, are they being reacted to and evaluated differently?

Unfortunately Professor De Wulf will not take this study into consideration, as he considers Catalyst to be a feminist lobbying organisation that doesn’t support its findings with hard facts and insights on the methodologies used! Neither does he consider McKinsey and its “Women Matter” reports that link gender diversity positively with performance, anyhow credible ….

So stop and think before saying that it is the fault of women if they are not satisfied with their careers. This is a simplistic prejudice that does nothing to promote women but blinds companies from understanding why so many high potential women between 35 and 45 years old start to leave!