Ladies... Mind the Gap

In the work I do around gender differences I'm becoming increasingly aware that they are not as collaborative as I might have expected on the issue of gender differences. I think there's a bigger generation gap among women than men when it comes to this. I find that women are less supportive of each other...

The common perception is that women are more collegiate than men; they're relationship-focused preferring collaboration over competition. I think, in my experience as a coach of both men and women, that this has been largely borne out; notwithstanding the usual caveat that there are more differences among women than between men and women. However in the work I do around gender differences I'm becoming increasingly aware that they are not as collaborative as I might have expected on the issue of gender differences. I think there's a bigger generation gap among women than men when it comes to this. I find that women are less supportive of each other despite Madelaine Albright's stark warning that there's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women!

This is a shame because as we are already in a minority at the top of most social and business organisations, then one would imagine we need to stick together to make much headway in changing the status quo. Based on my experience of coaching women at different stages here's my take on the generation gap that exists between BabyBoomer business leaders, Gen X mothers and Gen Y new starters.

Starting with the crop of successful female leaders at the top. My experience of these women (and yes I know I'm lumping them altogether which belies the rich mix of personality types but bear with me..) is that they are astonishingly accomplished. They have to be to have succeeded in what is pretty much still a man's world. Dame Helena Kennedy QC recently said that rather than get to climb the main staircase like the men, the women have to climb out the window and shin up the drainpipe! The numbers certainly support this with still only around 20% of board appointments going to women and of these many are non-executive directors rather than executive directors. In other words the "golden skirts" have been parachuted in the skylight rather than shinning up the drainpipe. The executive directors who have made it to the top have had to be exceptional. They stand out and so to fit in to the male culture at the top they have either possessed or emulated more masculine traits such as being dominant and assertive. Of course this is in addition to being highly organised and technically top of their game. They recognise that personal sacrifices have to be made and accept they need full time childcare and know that they won't be baking cupcakes for the school bring and buy sale if they want to keep their seat at the boardroom. Having taken the hard route up the drainpipe they are underwhelmed by the career efforts of their Gen Y and Gen X sisters.

They see the Gen X women asking for flexible working and long maternity leaves and then, having got them only to resign a year or two later anyway. They notice that the Gen X women don't shout out as much as their male colleagues or put their hand up for the high profile assignments. They get , frustrated that these women are too self-deprecating and, well, not "man enough". I remember Virginia Bottomley at one of the 30% club events encouraging women to "man up" and "outsource the ironing".

When it comes to Gen Y women, the children of the Baby Boomer generation, female leaders feel let down by their lack of appreciation of their efforts to carve out a route to the boardroom for them. They are dismayed and perplexed that these confident young women are not even sure they fancy going up the staircase at all. And those that do expect to take the express lift. Their fascination with social media looks like slacking as does their expectation of flexible working and their shift to shorthand texting and tweeting looks like an inability to concentrate.

Gen Y women for their part look up at the Baby Boomer female leaders and say "It's impressive but it's not for me. I want a career but I also want balance and these women don't have balanced lives." They point to the disproportionate number of them who have sacrificed having children and the fact that many of them have househusbands. Indeed they sometimes reason that it's better to have a male sponsor than a female one as men back their hunches where women play it fair. At a female lawyers' networking event I remember one young woman declaring that she prefers male bosses because they are easier to influence and have more power. Female bosses are too petty and micro-manage whereas male bosses don't take everything so seriously and are better fun.

They are very confident that they will succeed whatever they choose to do and don't consider their male counterparts as too much competition because they have outstripped them through school and university so why should they lose out to them now? They believe that they are on a level playing field and are dismissive of notions of unconscious bias. They are bemused by women's networks and female assertiveness programmes considering them quaint and passé, something dreamt up by their older feminazi colleagues. They support the Fix the System philosophy rather than the Fix the Women one. And even then who wants to stay in the system for too long? More scenic career routes appeal to them with increasing numbers of women under 30 citing "being independent" and" working for myself" as their primary aspirations. They don't necessarily want it all but they do want to try it all. They are irritated at being labelled the Entitled Generation thinking instead that their parents had it easy walking into jobs after uni and buying their first flats by 25.

And then you have women in the middle stage of their career, Gen X women who are desperately trying to fit it all in. The demands of children and older parents unfortunately collide with the crucial early 30s High Potential programmes in organisations meaning they're being looked at for promotion just when they don't feel at their best. Extortionate childcare costs (nannies are out of the question for most) and a phase of flat pay rises leave them feeling they are working for nothing. It's like they're on a tightrope on a unicycle trying to juggle all the balls at once. And all the while they have to endure the "walk of shame" when they leave on time to collect their kids from nursery. Chief among the critics are women; young female colleagues complain that they have to pick up the slack and older female colleagues are irked by them not employing a nanny or that their husbands aren't doing their share of the load.

I guess the upside is that women are transparent in their criticism whereas the male bias in the system is more unconscious and therefore more pervasive and elusive. Although I do believe we need to involve more men in the gender diversity discussion I also believe that women have to agree first.

And so we need to use our collegiate and collaborative skills to team up and talk out the issue of why so few women at the top starting with the question "how could the top look more appealing?"


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