Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE
Vol. 2 :: Iss. 4 :: November 1999
The New Breed
Where are all the womanagers? When some of Sonia Gandhi's colleagues in the Congress Party criticised her recently, they cited her foreign origins and inexperience as the reasons they thought she was unfit to govern India. Her gender was not high on the agenda.
Many women managers around the world would probably like their gender to be a given factor rather than predominate, even if it is also outmoded to consider origins and experience as important in today's global world where the future is not what it used to be. It used to be the case that a woman had to work twice as hard to be thought half as good as a man, and still got paid half as much. Some women certainly still feel that this is still the case.
Even today, the overwhelming majority of companies around the world are male dominated- this is as much the case in Europe, Asia and the US as it is in India. Old men run large companies. It is still unusual to come across a women at senior management level today. It has not become a routine part of everyday life. It still crosses your mind when you see them. There simply are not that many senior womanagers around.
Societies such as Japan are blatant in their discrimination against women - I made a presentation to a group of a dozen Japanese people in Tokyo recently, two of whom were women. At the end of the meeting, it was the two women who got up to collect the empty tea cups. None of the men moved or thought this unusual. When I, the honoured guest, got up to help them, I have never seen a group of men come to life so quickly, as they all sought belatedly to help. When you see the men openly leering at the women on the underground trains, it is enough to make you advocate wearing full dress. At least in Japan, the ridiculous notion that women are like turkey - they are no good after the 25th (of December or their birthday) - is gradually changing over time. Japanese women who travel overseas have begun to realise that they can be respected in society, even if that respect does not necessarily extend to the office.
In Japan, women have not traditionally continued to work once they have married. This could be used as an excuse by their employers for non-investment in training them. However, in today's unorganised world, few people stay in the same job for more than a couple of years, so discrimination because of limited returns from such investment is not a viable excuse. If you only invested in people who you were sure were going to stay in the business, this would probably limit your investment to family members. Some large companies have gradually diversified their workforce in terms of nationality, gender, age and background. They have done so more for defensive, legal compliance reasons and public relations than any other reason.
Companies are trying to avoid employee discrimination lawsuits and newspaper investigations. It's a bit like saying you care about the environment just because you have produced a leaflet about your environmental policy. Even when the equal opportunities and equal pay legislation are in place, the reality usually deviates from this rhetoric.
The second manager I ever had was a woman. And she was not a very good manager - she did not explain why a job needed to be done. Yet, when I complained about this to her (male) boss, he asked if the problem was that she was a woman. It was not; I believe that the only prejudice is talent, and she was not very talented.
When it comes to pioneering enlightened working practices for women, the Grameen Bank that started in Bangladesh excels. A stunning 94 per cent of all borrowers from that bank are women. This is despite the fact that both female borrowers and bank workers face considerable social barriers when having an independent income source and working outside of the home. And the loan default rate is minuscule.
In his book "Banker to the Poor: The autobiography of Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank", Yunus explains the circumstances of one of the bank's customers. This lady is named Hajeera. She explained that "All my life I was told I was no good, that I brought only misery to my parents because I was a woman and my family could not pay for my dowry. Many times I heard my mother say that she should have killed me at birth. I did not feel I was worthy of a loan, or that I could ever repay it." Since repaying this loan and subsequent ones, Hajeera and her family have gone from having sporadic food to owning a rice field and goats, ducks and chickens.
Gradually over time, the Grameen Bank workers modernised societal attitudes through their activities - they went against convention, but retained a sensitivity in doing so. Male workers spoke to potential women customers from the outside of their abode, and used female colleagues as go-betweens.
Rather than imploring men to change their attitudes and eliminate sexual discrimination, women can take proactive steps to transform their circumstances. In fact, the road to equality involves both of these things, such that eventually men and women will met half way.
Perhaps the best route for women to overcome the nascent prejudice amongst employers against them is by setting up their own companies and collaborating with other likeminded colleagues and customers.
These days, it is much easier for women to take the self- employment route because media such as the Internet have low entry barriers. It does not cost much or take that much technical knowhow to set up an Internet site. If the content is compelling, the Internet site name memorable and known, and if the layout of the content is intuitive, a website can succeed whoever its impresario is. An Internet site (with any content) can establish itself as a leader in popularity and profitability. After all, with the web, volume is vanity, but profit is sanity! However, there is a relation between volume and profit, since the more visitors you have, the greater the sales and advertising opportunities that can be offered. In fact, the major Internet portal companies that provide a map for the Internet have since acquired several of the Internet community sites targeted at women.
Ironically, the deregulation of the telecommunications market is probably the single most important step towards gender equality, because those who persist with sexist attitudes can simply be bypassed without adverse ongoing affect on income. There is no glass ceiling on the Internet, only a glass screen. I believe fiercely in a world in which each and every one of today's children truly has an equal opportunity to realise their full potential and find what truly makes them happy. Attitudes do change, and are changing, even if they do lag behind reality.
One day, the only prejudice really will be talent. Let us hope that day comes sooner rather than later.
Simon Buckingham is the author of the "unorganization" philosophy centred on www.unorg.com. Readers can leave feedback there or fax +44 7000 366367.