Stop Changing Women – Change Organisations Instead

Men seem to dominate decision-making positions. Even in schools or hospitals, where 80% of staff are women, men dominate senior management positions. Many people still believe that perhaps men deserve it. The argue men are more ambitious, work harder, have less of a focus on their family or are just better at business and decision-making.

However, when one looks at the figures, it’s easy to see that’s not the case. Women are often better educated, are just as ambitious and work just as hard, if not harder. In exit interviews with senior women only 30% mention that they leave for family reasons. There are other factors at play that keep women back. This loss of talent is costing organisations dearly.

Organisations are designed for men.

For historic reasons, organisations are designed for men. Systems, structures and culture tend to work particularly well for men.

A story from my own childhood, perfectly illustrates what that looks like in practice.

When I am five years old the thing I want most are the playground go-karts. I storm out at break time, run straight to the shed in the corner of the playground, and … wait patiently. I am convinced that the teacher knows how badly I want a go-kart and give one to me. But that day never comes.

That’s when I start looking at who is getting the go-karts, and I notice the children in front always get the go-karts; the big ones, the loud ones, and the pushy ones. Hence, in the next break I run as fast as my little legs can carry me. Then, I push my way through. I use my elbows, squeeze my tiny body through small gaps in the heaving crowd, and get to the front, shouting loudly that I want a go-kart. Guess what? It works. I get a go-kart.

The same is happening in organisations. A senior partner in a law firm explained to me that both the men and women in her practice are ambitious and good at their job. The men, however, seem to be knocking on her door more often; vying for projects that are of strategic value and letting her know that they are keen to be seen as partnership material. The women are always keen to help, and tend to take the projects they are asked to do. They shy away from mentioning any ambitions.

Should women change?

Of course we can teach women to be louder, use their pointy elbows and voice their ambitions, just like I did as a child. However, it takes a while for them to learn. And, just like it did for me as a child, it takes massive energy and effort to be loud and it doesn’t feel right; it just doesn’t feel authentic to many women. After that one time of getting the go-kart I never tried again, as it just hadn’t felt right.

On top of that, it can create a sense of insecurity, as it is against everything women learn from an early age. Being loud and self-affirming is not accepted in a group of girls, and girls that do so are quickly ostracized.

Should organisations change?

It is easier, and much more effective in the long-term for organisations to change.

Just to return to the go-kart situation. If the teacher would have been aware (some) girls wanted go-karts as badly as the boys, it would have been easy for her to create a system that works for both boys and girls. That would be a system where children are asked for what they would want, and where there is transparency and a clear set of rules about whose turn it is and which criteria are applied.

The same is true in organisations. Line managers need to understand ambition looks different in men and women. Teach them that women are just as ambitious as men, however it just looks differently. Line managers can suggest it may be time for a promotion. Ask her if she is up for it. And, create a promotional system that is transparent, with male and female role models.

Published with approval of the author.  Article written by Inge Woudstra, author of Be Gender Smart – The Key to Career Success for Women. The book uses neuroscience and bio-psychological insights to show gender differences. It has many more tips and ideas for women and line managers.