Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Do ‘women only’ business groups do more harm than good?

There is a discussion thread on Linkedin at the moment with the title: Please join us, I will be talking to the IOD (Institute of Directors) about this issue, we have set up a new group called Women in Business UK, our aim is to actively promote more balanced boards. The leader of this discussion goes on to say – ‘primarily our aim is to get more women on boards’.

As one could predict, the comments that follow this statement are as diverse as they are irritating and entertaining. Interestingly – it’s not just the men who are less than supportive of this aim. The first comment is, in my opinion, right on the money.  ‘I think it’s demeaning to women to suggest firstly that they will not get on a board because they are female and secondly that they should be there irrespective of ability’ Hear hear!

Can you imagine a group called Men in Business with the aim of ‘making sure the guys get the top jobs’! I have written before about chauvinism in the workplace and of course gender differences can create challenges. But men face their difficulties in the office too. To suggest that women are the weaker sex when it comes to work is outdated and unhelpful. The motherhood thing further complicates the issue. Yes, it can be tricky juggling childcare with a career, but more men are hands-on fathers these days. However, until men can actually give birth – women will still tend to bear the brunt of this responsibility, with the inherent limitations this can place on promotion prospects. Despite this, women not only succeed, they excel, not because they are female, but because they are best for the job.

It’s four centuries since Shakespeare’s Hamlet announced ‘Frailty thy name is woman’. We’ve come a long way since then and I suggest that much of this evolution is down to ability and fortitude, not special concessions.

The charismatic leader of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagrande infuriated me with her bid for presidency when she pitched ‘ ….if I’m elected I’ll bring my expertise as a lawyer, a minister, a manager and a woman’ (Wooooman carries even more emphasis if you read it with a strong, sexy French accent). Lagrande is no doubt a worthy incumbent of this top job - intelligent, courageous, financially and linguistically highly competent – so why did she have to state the obvious?

When I first set up my consultancy I went along to a woman’s networking event where I met some interesting and charming businesswomen. But I soon recognised (and I risk upsetting some of the sisterhood with this) that there was a hierarchy within this particular branch that was both exclusive and bitchy. I realised that I really don’t care if I do business with men or women, as long as they are supportive, fair and professional.

I do think there is merit in watching out for each other if you are in a male dominated environment – it’s nice to have another woman to keep you company. Likewise with a predominantly female event, I’m sure the men are tempted to stick together. And I do agree with Madeleine Albright (former US Secretary of State) when she said ‘There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women’. But that’s more about playing nice than creating an uneven playing field.

So I will not be joining the ‘Women in business’ group. I wish them well but prefer to reach giddy heights on merit rather than thanks to an unfair leg up (so to speak).  In the meantime, I hope to continue to enjoy good working relationships with both men and women and as Christine Lagrande should have said (again with a strong French accent please) … ‘vive la difference’!


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