“Be a women about it” wrote Danish newspaper Berlingske in Friday’s editorial. The response was a shitstorm of “shut ups”. The editorial may have been well-intentioned and rooting for women, as Jesper Beinov, cultural editor of Berlingske, later tried to explain in the news programme Deadline. But the execution was so flawed with prejudice that is was good and necessary to stomp hard on the brake pedal in the social media.
The editorial in Berlingske was related to Copenhagen being host city at last week’s huge international success: the Women Deliver conference with focus on women’s rights and equality across the world. The 5,500 attendees included men and women, royalty, ministers, business leaders, lobbyists and activists from around the world, who all promptly got on their feet when Annie Lennox asked the feminists in the room to stand up.
Politicians Kristian Jensen, Bertel Haarder and Mogens Lykketoft gave several gender equality fervent speeches during the week. Two 13-year-old schoolchildren, a boy and a girl, gave speeches at a Women Deliver mini meeting in Tivoli Gardens about how gender stereotypes also hurt children. The 500 emotionally moved attendees stood quite still and the next speaker, Bertel Haarder, had to dab at his eyes before going on stage and declaring himself a feminist – of course to resounding applause.
Perhaps it was because it was the first morning after a week chock-a-block with experiences like this that the editorial in Berlingske seemed like an extra hard kick in the teeth. But since the underlying intention was to back up women, I think it’s extra important to describe carefully why the road ahead is along a different path.
The editorial referred to Universum’s survey of more than 15,000 university students. The day before, the paper also made a reference to the survey with the line “labour market still characterised by Stone Age gender roles”. According the Berlingske the conclusion is that:
“Women want meaningful jobs with a pleasant atmosphere among colleagues and a good work-life balance, preferably in the public sector. Men, on the other hand, go for prestige, high salaries and market success in the private sector”.
In the survey 52% of women and 43% of men give a high priority to a good working climate. In terms of work-life balance, that is, time with the family, 56% of women and 45% of men find this important. The survey also made headlines in the Thursday edition of Berlingske with the claim that women want a social and creative working life. Here the difference is that a “creative and dynamic” working climate is important for 46% of male respondents and 48% of female respondents.
The above findings could also have been used in a story about how young men and women are approaching each other in terms of what they find attractive in the workplace.
Conclusion out of context
But some differences in preferences are admittedly quite clear:
“But how are women having to change their preferences to fit men’s preferences equality?”
The young female students rank meaningfulness, purpose and companies’ responsibility and ethics about 15% points higher than their male counterparts. The young male students, on the other hand, rank prestige, money, market success, and future earnings 15% points higher when choosing employer.
But Berlingske’s conclusion is strangely out of context:
“If women want equality they have to put aside their nice-girl upbringing and learn to hold their own in a competitive labour market among pointed elbows and sharp business suits where being popular is not necessarily a part of leaders’ job description”.
But how are women having to change their preferences to fit men’s preferences equality? And why does Berlingske deduce that women cannot move comfortably among pointed elbows and sharp business suits? In what way are meaningfulness, purpose and corporate responsibility synonymous with “nice-girl” upbringing” or “being popular”?
Why spread an unsubstantiated notion that women are less willing than men to make unpopular decisions? Looking at the women in the Danish parliament over a broad political spectrum from Pia Kjærsgaard over Inger Støjberg and Helle Thorning-Schmidt to Johanne Schmidt Nielsen it is unlikely that anybody would claim that they are less willing than men to do what they believe has to be done. No matter whether or not their decisions earn them popularity.
Women make bolder leaders
This is actually documented through international research.
“The results showed that women were bolder than men in terms of all parameters and in all sectors. Both in men-dominated and women-dominated sectors. The gender gaps were widest in the most men-dominated sectors. And the women were even bolder in relative terms.”
In April 2016 Harvard Business Review undertook a comprehensive study of 360-degree assessments from 75,000 leaders around the world. The purpose was to test the notion that men are generally bolder and more willing to take risks.
This team of researchers wanted to dig deeper, comparing the behaviour of men and women in terms of everyday leadership tasks including difficult decisions, toughness towards change processes and willingness to push harder to achieve the desired results. The conclusion was clear: women were slightly bolder than men on all parameters measured.
The study tested the key parameters for whether a leader can achieve results in a challenging everyday work situation as a leader. And it created a boldness index based on seven parameters:
- Challenges standard approaches
- Creates an atmosphere of continual improvement
- Does everything possible to achieve goals
- Gets others to go beyond what they originally thought possible
- Energises others to take on challenging goals
- Quickly recognises situations where change is needed
- Has the courage to make needed changes.
The results showed that women were bolder than men in terms of all parameters and in all sectors. Both in men-dominated and women-dominated sectors. The gender gaps were widest in the most men-dominated sectors. And the women were even bolder in relative terms.
One of the barriers to women’s success is that common stereotypes like for instance “good obedient girls” are maintained.
Focus on synergies rather than unification
We have to take a more nuanced view on what we perceive to need to achieve the greatest possible success. The “hard values” that we traditionally consider more business-oriented – young men’s preference for high earnings, prestige and working for successful companies – reflect short-term strategies that we need to achieve results in the near term. Correspondingly, women’s preference for meaningfulness, higher ethical standards and good relations can be seen as long-term strategies for creating sustainable results in the long term.
We need both to achieve sustainable success. We know that the companies which generate the best results and have the most satisfied employees are those working on the basis of a greater purpose including more meaningfulness and sustainable focus. That is why it is absurd that we make women’s preferences out to be a career hindrance. Instead, we must start to take a closer look at the synergies we can create by valuing the diversity of preferences and strategies uncovered by the Universum survey. Not least because we know that companies with gender-balanced management teams are doing better than those without.
The editorial in Berlingske also offers some advice to women:
“Baking cakes or decorating homes have never stood in the way of women’s careers. Being a parent with a full-time job means work 24/7. Even if you never in your life produce organically correct bakery products or buy a decorative cushion.”
“Rather than spending 25,000 kroner on a designer handbag, use the money on a Harvard summer course and accept that your house does not look like something out of an interior design magazine”.
Apart from the fact that the example is out of proportion with reality, it might be interesting to know why Berlingske believes that women in particular need further education. We need to remind ourselves that men and women in Denmark are actually equally well educated and competent. But for historical reasons and a lack of role models, women are challenged when it comes to feeling the same natural right to leadership positions as men do, and they often feel that they have to improve their qualifications even further. And that is why women on average already undertake more further education than men.
So, at best we could call Berlingske’s advice for dubious and in a worst-case scenario it makes the existing barriers even more impenetrable.
Berlingske seems to have an underlying assumption that women are not committed enough to their careers; yet their top score for attractive workplaces is: Good reference to future career. For men the top score is high future earnings. That is obviously a difference, but there is no evidence that women’s preference is less career-oriented than men’s.
And Berlingske goes on with another well-intentioned attempt to free women from thinking less about themselves or other women if they resort to shop-bought cakes rather than baking their own. Honestly, we are way beyond homebaking metaphors being food for thought. Baking cakes or decorating homes have never stood in the way of women’s careers. Being a parent with a full-time job means work 24/7. Even if you never in your life produce organically correct bakery products or buy a decorative cushion. And when Berlingske calls it “marrying down” when women marry men that are just as committed to their children and home as they are, it hardly boosts men’s motivation for equality in the home.
Large potential for value creation
One point that was repeated again and again at the Women Deliver conference was that it requires effort from both men and women to achieve equality.
“Both from an ethical and business viewpoint the case for equality is very clear – all we need now is the courage to make the necessary changes.”
The advantages of a better gender balance in management teams are well-documented at all levels. The comprehensive McKinsey survey that was cited frequently during the week points out that in Denmark alone we can create value to the tune of DKK167 billion annually if we move up on a par with Iceland, which is now the leader in terms of gender equality in the Nordic countries.
Denmark has lost its place in the Nordic league of gender equality in general, plummeting from number 5 to number 14. And in terms of women in management, we have a modest spot as number 81 out of 142 countries. These are the findings of World Economic Forum’s annual global gender gap report. Right now things are moving in the wrong direction – and that should set the alarm bells ringing. And galvanise all the nice speeches of the week into action.
Berlingske’s editorial gave us their idea of what women should do more and less of. I look forward to reading about Berlingske’s view on what men should do to help us close the gender gap and stop the drastic fall in all the international rankings.
Lack of gender equality is a common problem – not women’s problem or a problem to do with women. But if we close the gap, we all stand to gain. Both from an ethical and business viewpoint the case for equality is very clear – all we need now is the courage to make the necessary changes.
Be a man about it, Berlingske