With the increasing political and social pressure around gender equality, it is becoming challenging to know what men executives really think about the topic. Most of them don’t dare to share their true opinion about women advancement to the top executive positions. A common blah blah blah that is good for the business is becoming the standard message. Sometimes though there is a glimpse of real thoughts, like the “colorful and prettier” controversy initiated by the Deutsche Bank CEO. A good parody of that struggle can be found in the video of the Catalyst Awards 2011 .
Understanding the real mental patterns behind the “glass ceiling” (the famous invisible barrier making almost impossible for women to achieve executive positions) is the focus of a German. It was published in March 2010 by the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, or BMFSFJ for short, although I don’t know if I prefer better the long name or this impossible acronym ;). The study is entitled Women in Executive Positions: Barriers and Bridges and it includes the findings of a research based on interviews with more than 500 men and women executives of large and medium enterprises. All the people being interviewed held positions of responsibility with teams of at least 20 people.
The research shows that all participants agree on the strategic value of the presence of women in senior management BUT they have serious doubts about the possibility of achieving real progress. In particular in the group of men a number of false assumptions were identified which contribute to mantain the Glass Ceiling: 1 / incompatibility of work and family (although real data show that there are already both men and women with children in the highest ranks of companies), 2 / career continuity as an imperative (again not supported by data as at least 25% male executives have taken time out at least once) and 3 / career as a gradual development, meaning step by step (once more data shows that this is only true for women because many male “double-jump”, i.e climbing several positions at once.)
In addition to these assumptions, the study has also identified 3 basic mentality patterns among men in executive positions:
1 / Conservative Exclusion. Some of them reject women as a disruptive element in business management. For sure, this view is not shared in public, but going deeper in the conversation these men believe that business is conservative by nature and requires leaders with a stable family (and children). They believe that women who go for the top positions tend to be rude to others and don’t have good social skills because… they try too much to emulate men. This conservative mentality excludes women in the name of tradition and smooth operations in the business.
2 / Emancipated Attitude. These men really believe in equal rights at all levels. However, they consider that the top-level positions require a tough style to deal with the pressures of short-term results. The key point for them is that women don’t deal well with this because that was not the way they have been socialized. Men share rituals demonstrations of personal success and power. They can be crude or abrasive in their communication style. For women all of this is not normative and therefore they lack that basic learning from their life experiences. Basically, although these men believe in equality, they think that social roles are the real barriers to an increased women presence at the top.
3 / Radical Individualism. In this case, men simply think that women choose their family and they decide not to pursue an executive career. In short, few women are willing to go to senior management positions and this is not a question of company desire or decision. These men think that gender doesn’t matter nowadays, only personality and performance. They assume that it is women entirely decision to go for senior positions.
The 3 types of mentality patterns coexist in the same companies. They are part of an ecosystem of beliefs that play a critical role when it comes the time of deciding on a new appointment for an executive position. It would be wrong anyway to draw the conclusion that the “problem” of women in business are men. It is rather the organization of work, the definition of leadership, and many preconceived ideas about gender, shared by men and women through education and socialization, which really mantains the current status, even if it is not in the best interest of business.
PS: This post was originally posted in Spanish in Diversidad Corporativa in April 2010. I have re-written it in English and developed an updated introduction.