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Water off a Duck’s Back: women’s management development in 2022 (Part 1)

The role of female managers in business, their unique challenges in their day-to-day work, and how to meet social and business expectations at the same time, have long been a hot topic in the forums. There are many other areas where business decision-makers believe that gender perceptions, functioning and pathways to success differ to a lesser or even greater extent. The general problem with the approach to this issue is that very few people dare to be honest, because, depending on societal expectations, honesty can be costly for a manager, because the subject is very sensitive. However, sound solutions based on a template clearly cannot support the real development of the people concerned, their reintegration into a new life after COVID-19, and in a war situation that is now under the world’s attention.

Let us not pretend…

When we talk about the role of women in business, there are a lot of “basic ideas” that have been bred into people for decades. The reason I didn’t write centuries is because, back then, it was a question of whether they could even vote. There are many films, works of art and, of course, the historical events on which they are based and the accounts of them that follow step by step how women have achieved the business challenges that we can even talk about today. What phrases do we get used to about them? For example, ‘the role of women in business, and more narrowly in management, is unquestioned’, which would suggest an absolutely open-minded person in the background, as it acknowledges their role. But if we look at even this sentence – even if it is put into words with the best of intentions – it is a profound insult to women’s interests, because the question rightly arises: why is it necessary to say this at all, since it is perfectly natural and obvious, and therefore unworthy of being said? One can argue with the author of the sentence just as one would argue with the person who wrote it. Because if we pretend – or want to pretend, or even if we really think that we already do – that the role of women is unquestionable for everyone, in, say, leadership positions, then we are deceiving ourselves. Because that is certainly not the case! Obviously, we cannot say that all women and all men think that women should clearly have a role in business leadership. It may be a specific ‘experience’, a social indoctrination or simply envy. It may be that there is clear dissent, or it may be that there are just doubts about a female leader, but it almost makes no difference to the outcome! We cannot take it for granted that male and female leaders are equal in the eyes of all. And this has to be taken as a reality when we talk about coaching and developing women. So I could say that I am making a mistake in the first place when I write about women managers, but I think, if I am honest, it would be a mistake not to do so.

From Afghanistan to Scandinavia

Now that we have made it clear that, yes, the challenges faced by female managers are not entirely the same as those faced by male managers, we are one step closer to a solution. The other important point of reference that needs to be recorded is the differences in location, social differences and the communication differences that reinforce them. I like to use extreme examples, which I think helps even more to get the message across. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan raised huge questions and it was foreseeable that the hard-won civilisational aspirations could be set back by decades. One of the most heartbreaking pieces of news was precisely that we could expect the persecution and immediate replacement of female leaders, not to mention the fact that in some cultures, girls will not even have the right to education in 2022. At the other extreme, I would say perhaps the Scandinavian culture. A very dear friend of mine is a doctor in a very prestigious hospital in one of the capitals, and he tells me in a natural tone of voice that women are not allowed to be seen by men when they open the door, because this is a sign that the two are not completely equal. Foreign colleagues have problems with this before they get used to it. I mostly move between these two cultures on my business trips, so there is a very colourful palette between the two extremes in terms of attitudes in different countries. This is something to be aware of when talking about female managers, especially in a multinational organisation where HQ often lives in a real “ivory tower”, but their ideas are pushed through the subsidiaries often without considering that they are actually putting their female colleagues in a very hard squeeze.

The perception of women

This is perhaps the most interesting part of the theme on the development of women managers. Because in most cases, we simply state that men’s perceptions of women are one way or another, and this makes it impossible for them to become really good managers. I am not saying that men do not have preconceptions about women when it comes to being a manager, but let us not think that only men are to blame in this area! Several premium consultancy firms report that women’s perceptions of women are more negative than men’s. As the consultancies we interviewed have very deep relationships with their partners, the research is not official, but it is a warning. And what do we think of women leaders in general? More unpredictable, more sensitive, weaker, less logical than men. Shall I list them? Let’s leave aside for the moment where these findings come from! People are guided in their decisions and actions by their personalities, influenced by their behaviour. This is completely independent of whether we are talking about women or men. What is interesting is that when the two sexes are contrasted, we tend to put one in one personality type group and the other in another. Moreover, in each case, they are placed at the exact opposite pole of the psychological circle. If I take RISE’s typology as a basis, in most cases women are placed in the “individual” type, i.e. the emotional, influential, unpredictable, ad-hoc, dynamic, but often hasty type, paying serious attention to looks, appearance and uniqueness. Men are the “expert” type, because they are logical, systematic, interested in objective facts and able to make unemotional decisions. Even written down like that, this sounds like complete nonsense, since more than 30% of the male managers they analysed are individuals, and that already disproves the theory. Add to that the fact that more than 20% of the female managers they measured are experts, and the generalisation fails completely. The most important thing any society needs to learn is to talk about people and not clichés if we want to achieve real results. And in the end, when it comes to development or preparation for a management position, it is the result that counts! And then there is one more misconception to put right! We have already seen that understanding women’s and men’s leadership is not dependent on gender. Rather, it is determined by whether the person wants to understand the person, whether he or she can understand the person, whether he or she is aware of the person’s personality and the advantages and disadvantages that this entails. Moreover, can he or she transfer this information to the current social context and confront the local perception of females leaders in general. And, of course, the most important thing is whether we dare to be honest about this issue with ourselves, the women involved in development in this case, or whether we are playing the big social theatre on this issue. It may be that if we put on an act, we will appear nicer and more manageable, but it is also certain that no one will make any real progress. In other words, the development practitioner himself has to take a risk in order to get results. But few people dare to do that these days.