Steve Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, famously wrote that ‘behavioural science is not for sissies’ and I agree. Although I wish somebody had alerted me to this fact before I embarked on a four-year long Sociology degree aged 19. I think this phrase is even more relevant to those of us foolish (or brave) enough to be interested in gender issues, for there does appear to be a social, cultural and corporate wound in this space. Perhaps the reason for this is because it has been an area of study where lots of contradictory opinions have prevailed? History, politics and economics have contributed to influencing gender dynamics and most importantly, I think, really discussing and teasing out gender issues happens relatively subtly. Of course the status quo has also influenced the ‘story’ of gender and as usual stories are subjective. I also think that we have all been far more socially conditioned in to gender codes and roles of behaviour than we think; and that even for those liberated, progressive, urban, secularised, Westernised and egalitarian amongst us, I think we will find less fairness going on than we would like to think there is. Furthermore I think that because there are real wounds in this space, many women are cautious about admitting that there are differences between men and women; and men would just never be so brazen as to suggest such a thing, except possibily in the recesses of their own minds, for fear of being labeled misogynist (and that’s the PC name, for the purposes of this article). But I think, having come through the whole post-war; and 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s feminist movement, it’s time to acknowledge that men and women are different; and like all difference, that is to be celebrated. As a Gen X’er, one of the big things I am celebrating (as a woman) is that I was never subjected to the fashion of wearing shoulder pads. I always thought that was so symbolic of women trying to have broader shoulders like men. My philosophy has always been to suggest that women should put on their stilettos and lip gloss and be proudly feminine in order to succeed in the new world of work.
So essentially for about two millennia men and women have remained biologically different from one another, but their essential biology hasn’t changed. What has changed is our social conditioning.
Not only has our social conditioning changed, but education has also. In an article for The Times entitled ‘A woman’s world beckons’, Professor Jonathan Jansen states that ‘we are running out of educated men‘. This is quite a bold statement to make. But I found it particularly pertinent because I had lunch with the headmaster of a very established, well-respected all-boys private school (one modeled on a traditional English public school) recently, who was expressing similar sentiments. The headmaster in question has noticed that in the last few years, relative to their sister school, that his male students are struggling. Like this headmaster, Professor Jansen has noticed that there is a consistent trend where there are more female than male graduates from university, across all disciplines. The same thing is happening at school level. At the end of 2011 230 846 male students wrote Matric (their final school year examination) and 166 057 passed. The pass rate for a South African Matric is a 30% average. However, 265 244 female students wrote Matric and 182 060 passed. So not only did more girls write, but more girls passed. As Professor Jansen points out, if you multiply this over a ten year period, those are significant numbers which will result in a pretty uneven education playing field; and later, arguably, an uneven workforce along gender lines.
In addition to this education trend, which will influence the workplace, by making it more feminine, there are various key trends that will add more estrogen to the workplace.
- Legislative and government policy will influence the numbers of women in the workplace. Governments in Spain, France and Norway, for example, are already adopting ‘targets’ for women in public service; and no doubt corporates will follow suit.
- As the epicentre of commercialism moves further and further East, so will demographic shifts and changes happen along gender lines. It is likely that in developed economies women will replace men in the workplace (as men go East), which will result in a feminine influence over corporate culture.
- As we see a rise in a female-dominated workplace, so will we see a rise in the demand for more flexible working conditions like job-sharing, part-time work and flexible working hours, which will shift and change organisational structures, policies, processes and strategy, as well as hiring and retention programmes.
- Although important, women tend to be less motivated by financial gain and appear more interested in flexibility in the workplace (probably so they can accommodate their domestic responsibilities). So organisations in the future will have to take flexibility and fluidity in to account when building their strategies.
- Women tend to lead through collaboration, communication and networking, and less by competitiveness, which may result in their being less profit for shareholders being generated in the future; and more employee satisfaction and social profit.
Of course all these things will take time, but forward thinking business leaders should start now to enable women to achieve leadership positions, as their essential talents compliment a connection economy, but also because you should want to attract and retain women in your organisation (even after they have had babies). In my view, companies and organisations will have to consciously find ways to enable women to give birth, raise children and stay connected to the organisation, so they do not lose their female talent. Of course this is not to say that their male talent is just as important, anywhere needs a healthy balance, but I am talking specifically about female leadership here.
The above trends will also influence domestic set ups, as more and more men will become house-husbands. In most countries there is a patriarchal hangover from the past and so I think there are going to be interesting dynamics playing out for families going forward. I am hoping there will be much more balance for men and women in order to fulfill their domestic responsibilities whilst also having a satisfying career. This is possible because of technology amongst other things.
There will always be those women who decide to become ‘mompreneurs’, small, home-based businesses, whereby women get paid in a formal capacity to do the unpaid/ informal work of their mothers and grand-mothers. A good example of this might be a mother with a degree in accounting who starts a small arranging toddler’s birthday parties. In addition to this, because of the cost of child care (mostly in developed economies) women are choosing to be stay-at-home Moms despite the fact that they might have a law degree. That is exactly the kind of women companies need to find out how to retain, because her children will grow up and go to school and she will want to use her legal brain again.
So where does all this leave men and women? I think there is an interesting and worrying trend which both Professor Jansen and the headmaster I spoke of illuminates for us which is: in the future will we have to worry about how men fit in to the workplace? But at the same time we are still dealing with how to assist women at work, deal with discrimination and real-life challenges in order to grow females in the leadership space.
It’s complicated. I repeat Pinker’s sentiments: behavioural science is indeed not for sissies.