Damned if she does; damned if she doesn’t

At the recent FT Women at the Top conference dinner, I found myself seated next to a senior director of a well-known Swiss private bank. She confessed that while her seniority meant she had significant scope and responsibility, she had never gone for a partnership – nor would she. The bank has never had a female partner in its 200-year history, and while as partner her job would not change fundamentally, her remuneration clearly would.

In explaining her decision, she said the partners of the bank all got together every weekend for bonding events, and while she happily worked all hours of the week, she reserved weekends for her family. This was the only reason she had not fulfilled her ambition.

I have just finished reading Lynn Cronin and Howard Fine’s book whose title I’ve borrowed for this post’s headline. (The subtitle is Rethinking the Rules of the Game That Keep Women from Succeeding in Business.) It argues it is business culture itself that has inadvertently created a no-win situation for women in corporate life, not sexism per se.

The two US-based consultants argue there are five significant rules that are to blame: being a team player; cultivating advocates; demonstrating commitment to the job; bonding; and judicious challenging of the power structure. The book draws on the authors’ significant experience in consulting for S&P 500 companies, but its conclusions are not strictly data-driven.

Taking each of the rules, the authors argue, women cannot win. For example, if a senior man mentors a junior woman, the relationship is viewed with suspicion, while if a senior woman mentors a junior woman, it is feminist conspiring, they say. Cronin and Fine point to the fact that advocates who “don’t teach, [but] champion” are far more likely to have male protégés than female. This, the authors say, is partly because people tend to promote juniors in their likeness.

Women who try to be team players are criticised for “acting like men”, while those who take a more independent stance are vilified for not being team players. If women show commitment to work, they are criticised for not caring about their home or personal life, while such criticisms are never laid at the doors of their male counterparts.

And this leads me back to my conference-dinner neighbour. In her case, certainly, it is the perception of a cultural requirement that is keeping her out of the partnership of her bank, whether or not it is entirely accurate. Perhaps if more people tested these cultural perceptions and questioned their usefulness, we wouldn’t just see more women at the top, but also more talented people of both genders. What do you think?

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