Guest comment: The real reason women don't make it to the top

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Birthe Mester, managing director for business development at consultancy the Centre for High Performance Development, suggests why women don't get promoted in investment banking.

Not long ago, I was doing some diversity work with a group of male managers in an investment bank. A diverse bunch, they were very different in their style and personality: some were confident extroverts, others were serious and thoughtful; one was unorthodox and opinionated, and others were highly conservative. Ostensibly, the only thing they had in common was that they all worked for the same firm.

However, when I asked them to share with me the reasons they believed women were not reaching senior levels in their organisation, their attitudes to female progression proved remarkably similar - and generally negative.

The women in question were just one or two rungs down the career ladder from our male bankers. One woman was criticised for not being demanding enough of people who didn't deliver - she was inclined to talk to people, listen to their perspective and encourage and coach, rather than say 'just f*****g do it!'. Another woman was described as being 'hard-assed' and difficult. Her boss had arranged for her to receive coaching to address her aggressive style before she could be recommended for promotion, even though she is a highly successful person.

When we turned to discuss some of the practical steps that the investment bank could take to address the lack of women at the top of their organisation, several of the men commented that they would not be in favour of any interventions that 'turned the women into men'.

Talk about 'damned if you do...'

What became increasingly evident to me in this session was that there is a very narrow bandwidth of acceptable behaviour for many women in the workplace. Women are heavily scrutinised and criticised if they stray outside this very narrow definition of acceptable behaviour. In contrast, men seem to have great freedom to express their different personalities as long as they deliver the goods. They could be extroverted or introverted, thoughtful or vociferous, unorthodox or conservative. The women couldn't. If they were vociferous, they were criticised for being aggressive. If they were introverted, they were criticised for not being demanding enough of others.

Since that session, I have come across this narrow bandwidth of acceptable behaviour in several other organisations. It may not be expressed explicitly most of the time, but the 'way you need to be to get on around here' can directly prevent women from achieving senior positions.

I am reminded of Rosabeth Moss-Kantor's excellent video: The Story of 'O'. In this video, we see a roomful of Xs - all looking and acting very differently. Then, in walks an O and suddenly the Xs all look quite similar and the O stands out. Sometimes the O adopts a strategy of trying to turn into an X shape. At other times, the O attempts to hide behind the Xs. It doesn't matter. Whatever the O does, the critical spotlight is on them, giving them a whole other dimension besides job performance to worry about.

When the bandwidth of acceptable behaviour and leadership style is so narrow, we should hardly be surprised that so many high-performing women decide to leave these male bastions to set up their own businesses. I have to question whether we will ever see an equality of men and women at the top in British business when the framework for success is so narrow and prejudiced.

Surely one of the first steps in 'diversity' projects is to recognise and value the very different styles and ways of getting the job done. Instead of 'coaching' women to squeeze into the narrow bandwidth of 'acceptable' behaviour, we should be celebrating the diversity of styles that can work together to achieve success.

A version of this article first appeared in Personnel Today.

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