Are women fighting hard enough to get to the top?

Getting to the top of any organisation has always required toughness and political skill. If you want to be the chief executive you must be ready to roll up your sleeves and fight it out.

Most debates about getting women onto boards and into top-level jobs revolve around the roles of regulators, policymakers and even headhunters. But if women shy away from the fierce competition needed to come out on top, will they ever get there?

For men, it is quite obvious that if you want to lead the pack, you need to demonstrate your strength and superiority in every situation. Doing whatever it takes may include aggressive negotiations for resources, merciless intimidation and nasty lobbying in dark corners – even the public humiliation of adversaries.

It is not pretty. The fight for leadership can get very ugly indeed in the face of scary market challenges. At the same time, these unseemly management skills do have their upsides: they can align opponents around a common vision, quickly settle open disagreements and prove to all that the winner will do anything and everything to get them where they want to go.

Women, on the other hand, love to talk it out: thoughtful, positive reinforcement at carefully selected points, patient building of trust over time and peace-loving remarks placed here and there to find a consensus that makes everyone comfortable about moving forward. These are wonderful tactics for mediators, pacifiers and selfless value-creators, but not so good for competitors who covet the next chief executive opening.

When many suitors want the only available bride, fighting dirty is compulsory. In the corporate world, the bride is the chief executive job. Women may need to relinquish the elegant lady-in-waiting role they were brought up to play, and get a lot smarter about mastering unfriendly competition.

Who said leading was a walk in the park anyway?

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.