- Isabella Lenarduzzi

Is power still an old-fashioned male business?

It’s already four years ago that Elisabeth Kelan published a study on the difficulties of keeping the spotlight on the gender policies called “Gender Fatigue”. She stated that the majority of companies thought that they had done what was necessary to achieve gender balance in management and henceforth it was necessary that women decided if they really wanted positions of responsibility. These men and women managers believed that if there was a risk of discrimination before, they had worked hard to resolve such issues and transformed their workplace into a neutral place where meritocracy is reality. However, even though the debate about gender equality in the workplace had taken off in the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon countries in 2009, it still hardly existed at all in the rest of Europe. That was before national legislation set quotas for Boards of Directors and before the ferocious battle by Commissioner Viviane Reding to push through a European Directive. So where are we four years on?

Most consultants will tell you that the majority of companies are disappointed with their gender diversity policy. Women understand their importance for the performance of their company (90% of the 400 women questioned by JUMP in 2012) but less than half of them thought that their added value is effectively recognised by their hierarchy and 71% thought that they were not sufficiently recognised at all. This lack of recognition is one of the main reasons why women choose to leave their companies. This reason is even more important than having a better work-life balance! Only 35% of women believe that they have the same opportunities for promotion as the men in their companies whereas men are much more likely to think that they do have the same opportunities.

Do we still need to prove and convince that the balance between the number of men and women is a factor of business performance and economic growth? It would seem so…

On the world stage, Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook, recalls that “out of 190 heads of state, only 9 are women. About 13% of national parliamentary seats are occupied by women. In the US, only 15% of ‘top jobs’ in companies are in the hands of women and that hasn’t changed in the past 10 years despite the fact that 60% of graduates are women. The number of female CEOs heading up the 500 biggest companies has fluctuated in the last 10 years between 2% and 3%.” Driven by the legislation on quotas (or its threat), some countries such as France are achieving remarkable results with nearly 60% of women among newly appointed directors, which has led to an increase of the average number of women on  Boards  of the CAC 40 (benchmark French stock market index) to 24%, However, this result does not take into account the evolution in the number of women in other spheres of power such as the Executive Committees for example.

This week the Belgian Institute for Equality of Women and Men published a report on the evolution of the presence of women at the top between 2008 and 2012. It’s nothing less than disastrous. This study is very telling because it analyses the number of areas of power such as politics, media, NGOs, universities, the army, public institutions, professional bodies, social partners,… and this I believe is a reflection of reality in Europe.

For example, in 2008, women seemed to be relatively well represented in the media. But just four years later the number of female editors-in-chief has remained at 30%, while the number of women responsible for content fell to around 21.4%.In academia the presence of women on university Boards of Directors has only increased from 21% to 23%. An increase that is mostly due to a decline in the number of Board seats rather than an increase in the number of directors. In 2012, there was not one single female university rector (bravo to the newly appointed Rector of the University of Ghent!). The feminisation of some professions such as medicine or law have had no impact whatsoever on the positions of power in those fields. There is not one single woman on the Medical Board!

Has there been a “quota effect” in companies as it happened in France? In 2012 the number of women in the Boards of Directors of Belgian companies listed on the stock exchange and the 100 major companies not listed rose from 6% in 2008 to 10%! More than 60% of companies listed on the stock exchange don’t have any woman on their Boards of Directors. There has even been a decline in the number of women CEOs even though they are already insignificant in number. While the excuse that is so often used is that there are not enough available women (“competent” say the boldest), the founder of “Women on Board”, which comprises a “pool” of more than 200 qualified women ready to take on such posts stated that in 2012 only 10 companies consulted their database. So where is the error?

The only progress has been made in sectors where coercive measures have been taken. That is certainly the case for a part of the federal public institutions which has a minimum quota of a sixth (sic) of women at the top of the public administration, or in the parliaments and in the Flemish Government.

So how can this general stagnation or decline be explained?
Even if the majority of men think that their workplace isn’t masculine but human, are companies not a clan for a certain type of old-fashioned male, a sort of old boys’ club? As Christophe Falcoz declared at the JUMP Forum in Paris, “a company is an institution that has not only inherited and imitated its masculine values from other institutions (mostly the army and engineers) but it is also another male place exactly like the one that educates young boys to become “real” men. The control of the production of future peers ensures their reproduction of their own system (among managers, among men), with the appointment of successors (managers, sons, men). Sexist and homophobic jokes, business dinners, memberships of private clubs, informal discussions “among men” about sport all reinforce the hierarchies between the genders and in selecting candidates that conform to the leadership style. Logical submission, conformity and allegiance can thus lead to imitating the dressing code, sharing the locker room after a friendly sporting event, accepting to help “one of his own” rather than another person who is more competent  in order to please and to be accepted by the circle of dominant (male) managers.”

As expressed by Roselyne Bachelot (former French Minister) at a symposium organised by ORSE in March 2011, “the legitimacy of male power is Bonaparte at the bridge of Arcola. I take the flag, I am your boss, I say what’s right, good and useful and you follow me. I have seen in politics that women simply do not possess this level of authority. Their legitimacy only proceeds from a consensus-building process and the mandate entrusted to them is constantly challenged by people who have given them this power. I think that this feminine way – if we can call it that – of exercising power is extremely modern. To be effective, human society needs to function in this way.”

The challenge is therefore to diversify this outdated model of leadership by mandatory or voluntary measures to ensure that all people can be recognised and valued. It is only in this way that we can build companies and a society that it truly MERITOCRATIC.