Stephanie Russell and Theresa Simpkin on whether women need ‘fixing’

21 August 2017 -

Theresa SimpkinsA lack of women in leadership roles has variously been attributed to an inherent lack of confidence, an inability to display traditional managerial or leadership competencies, and a simple failure to aspire to senior roles

Dr Theresa Simpkin and Dr Stephanie Russell

The assumption is that, if we could just fix the women and have them better display competencies and behaviours associated with a traditional managerial profile, organisations would be flooded with women rushing into the boardrooms and C-suites.

Books such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In also suggest ways that women can better play the organisational game for their own gain.

But this argument fails to recognise that the rules of the game are biased and dysfunctional.

While organisations strive to become more agile, diverse and inclusive, the inherent mechanisms of bureaucracy and organisational control deliver the opposite result. Our organisations maintain a veneer of modernity but, in truth, fundamental internal management structures have changed little since the post-industrial era.

They are implicitly gendered because of it.

Sadly, the inherent barriers in organisations continue to negate the performance of women as women in managerial and leadership roles.

Instead, women are expected to display characteristics more associated with a masculine managerial persona. Here are three examples.

First, performance management. Performance-measurement tools expect women to subscribe to a socially constructed, Western, masculine, probably middle-class behavioural approach. This, in turn, puts the onus on the woman to fit in, at the expense of a sense of authenticity and personal style.

The premise is that women either change their style to fit a traditional management expectation or they fail to make it as a manager.

It’s a classic double bind.

Second, promotion and advancement. Organisations are breeding grounds for implicit knowledge about how to succeed; many of these rules exclude women and minority groups.

They pressurise people to perform to a traditional organisational stereotype of progression and advancement. Such rituals define a set of behaviours such as a drinking culture, presenteeism and rampant competitiveness.

These practices not only exclude women, but also others who may prefer not to conform to expectations that have no real connection to their role or work.

Third, board representation. Why women are lacking on boards and in the C-suite is the subject of ongoing conjecture. The narrower career trajectories often available to women limit the breadth of experience and evidence that a woman might bring to the traditional notion of a board member.

Fundamentally, there is a disconnect between what is afforded women by way of organisational experience and what is traditionally expected of individuals seeking executive appointments.

For example, women who have deep experience in HR but not across other operational areas are thought of as less competent than someone who may have more rounded experience.

However, many management competencies are generic. In short, board or C-suite appointments should not be about expansive ‘wish lists’ but representative of an innovative, diverse set of opinions and views.

The fundamental assumption here is that women who do not endeavour or manage to ‘fix themselves’ have their competence challenged or diminished, as their talents are perceived differently to those of the prevailing managerial stereotype.

It then becomes their problem that they are not promoted or advanced.

Simply put, women who do not exhibit the gender-bound characteristics implicit in organisational bureaucracies are unlikely to climb the corporate ladder.

And we’re all worse off for it.

Dr Theresa Simpkin is head of the leadership and management department at Anglia Ruskin University:

Dr Stephanie Russell is acting head of the human resource management and organisational behaviour department at Anglia Ruskin University:

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