We should see it as a step forward, not something to push against.
However, I must make a distinction: there is a huge difference between ‘positive discrimination’ and ‘positive action’. The former is illegal, the latter isn’t.
It’s perfectly legal for organisations that have an imbalance of men and women to take positive steps to redress the balance. This is what Lloyds Bank has recently declared it will do.
An organisation that wants to introduce a programme of positive action will set targets and then draft a plan of action to achieve them.
It could evaluate its existing procedures to make sure that they are free from discriminatory practices – but this is the tricky bit because they might not be obvious. This is because issues such as informal recruitment and selection, as well as unconscious bias, are difficult to pin down – they rest mostly in people’s heads. (Let’s face it, most people wouldn’t admit being sexist or racist; they’re more likely cover it up and justify their decisions on other basis.)
Changes in organisations are difficult. It’s fair to say that Lloyds will attract some criticism for its target setting but we women should support the bank for its statement of intent.
However, there is a big problem: many of us don’t.
I have met and worked with thousands of women over the past 20 or so years and many of them are against quotas or targets to put more women into senior management roles.
One reason is that they believe there will be a backlash against the push for women into senior roles.
Another is that they don’t want to get a job unless they deserve it. They don’t want other people to think they were only appointed because of their gender; they want to be assured that they worked hard and deserved their role.
On its own, there isn’t anything wrong with this: it’s the definition of what we mean by ‘work’ that needs to be explored.
Is work mixing with the other boys on the golf course? Is work being loud and argumentative? Or is work helping everyone come to their own solutions? Or generating solutions that favour all, not just one set of clients /customers /employees?
So, why do we need more women in senior roles?
One reason: too many blokes in a room increases testosterone, making the decision making more risky and ‘gung-ho’.
I know – I worked in the motor industry for 15 years where I found it difficult to get a word in (yes, I can’t believe that, either). It was an environment where you were judged a success by the number of people you could fire or by how many times you could get the word ‘fucking’ into a sentence (I did a pretty good job on this one myself).
When there is a better mix of men and women, there is less nodding through of decisions and more testing of assumptions and a more rounded process that leads to decisions.
When there are too many similar people in the decision-making process, we get what is called ‘group think’ and this has a disastrous effect because the leader is the dominant force who pushes through decisions and overtalks any challengers.
‘Group think’ is well documented to have been a massive contributing factor in both the collapse of RBS and the Challenger Shuttle disaster.
In both cases there was a lone voice who challenged the decisions that were being made but was ignored.
This is one of the most important reasons why we need more women. We tend to think differently and are more inclined to press the brakes when we know incorrect decisions are being made. This is because we see the broader picture; we are less driven by ‘self’ and more likely to analyse the broader implications.
Let me give you an example. As I watched a documentary on the collapse of RBS, I watched open mouthed as I saw the photographs of CEO Sir Fred Goodwin with his famous friends at all the golf tournaments the bank had sponsored.
If it had been me heading the bank, I’d have had photographs of all the small businesses that we had helped – pictures of their success, not mine.
There is a subtle but very important difference.
The decision to increase the number of women into senior roles is about placing a stake in the ground; it’s saying that we are just as worthy of occupying those positions as men. It’s about us believing that we can – not if someone thinks we should.
If we all went to work believing that we were equally as good as the men then the balance at the top would look a lot different.
When someone taps us on the shoulder, we should take it and not wonder what everyone else thinks or worry whether or not we are good enough. We already are. There – I said it. WE ARE ALREADY GOOD ENOUGH AND WE DESERVE A PLACE IN THE C-SUITE!
Strange but I have never heard a bloke who reached the top, thanks to a little help from his friends, say that he didn’t deserve it or that he hadn’t worked hard enough to get there. (And then think all the old boys in the network of David Cameron’s coalition government.)
Of course, this is not an exclusive male/female divide and I admit that I making generalisations but it has been proven over and again: having more women in an organisation is better for everyone all round.
We are just as capable as men but we just don’t shout about it as loudly, which unfortunately works against us because I’ve never met a big corporate that values modesty and humility.
So, next time you are wracked with insecurity about your capabilities, just think about this: “What would you need to believe about yourself to think that you would only get a job because of your gender?”.
What do you need to believe about yourself to get that next promotion you want so badly?
Jo Cameron has been studying Women’s Leadership for nearly two decades. You can read more about her and Achievers Academy for women here.