Are gender wars a thing of the past?

With the country celebrating Women’s Month in August it is a sobering thought that although we’ve come a long way since our mother’s days of gender inequality – it’s no less real in 2013. A recent article on executive feminism in Harvard Business Review said at current rates, it would take nearly three centuries for women globally to reach parity as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

In politics the situation is no different and the recent demise of Australian Prime Minister and Labour Party Leader, Julia Gillard, highlights that fact that despite her significant achievements she was still ridiculed by the public, by male colleagues and the media for trivial things such as low cut tops and the like. Literally “muscled” out by male counterparts, one questions if her demise was simply because of her Labour views, her class affiliations or simply her female status.

As in many other places around the world, in South Africa women can get low-paid jobs. They can get middle-management jobs. Very few have jobs at the top. The proportion of women in executive management positions in South Africa has increased marginally, according to a women in leadership census released last year. It found women occupied 3.6 percent of CEO positions, 5.5 percent of chairperson posts, 17.1 percent of directorships and 21.4 percent of executive management positions in the country.

In a recent Business Day: Letter to the Editor, on the subject of gender disparity, Shoks Mzolo, writes : ‘on the ground, discriminatory practices, social norms and persistent stereotypes often shape inequitable access to opportunities, resource and power for women and girls.’ He says women remain underdogs or, at best, spectators.

But Natalie Maroun, lead Strategist at Performance Agency LRMG, says there is a new frontier of feminism. At last some of the women who have reached the top are starting to speak out about just how hard it is for women to get there and are providing advice for younger women who are still climbing the corporate ladder.

These women represent a new breed of women and are typically not the ‘Queen Bee’ stereotype. Queen Bees are defined as senior women in masculine organisational cultures who have fulfilled their career aspirations by disassociating themselves from their gender while simultaneously contributing to the gender stereotyping of other women.

A study of 94 women holding senior positions in The Netherlands found that indicators of the Queen Bee phenomenon, which include increased gender stereotyping and masculine self-descriptions, were found mostly among women who indicated they had started their career with low gender identification and who had subsequently experienced a high degree of gender discrimination on their way up.

The Harvard article supports this with research which shows that women who succeed in jobs dominated by men, not surprisingly, often do so by distancing themselves from other women.

Maroun believes this is slowly changing and we are now starting to experience a rising executive feminism which recognises individual achievement. “This is just what we need to jump-start the stalled gender revolution. Harnessing individual talent and skill, irrelevant of gender, is key to optimising business efficiencies. Any kind of stereotyping only gets in the way and slows down the natural progression,” she says.

“We need to overcome society’s lingering discomfort with powerful women and the idea that wealth is unseemly in a woman.”

In the same Business Day article, Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus says, “Women have insights, experience and ability no modern society can afford to do without.”

And yet women are often their own worst enemies, scolding wealthy and powerful women for their ambition and even feeling guilty themselves. “If we can break that pattern and place women in power who value other women and appreciate the challenges a position of power brings, then we can finally start to change the corporate landscape,” says Maroun.

Maroun says women will never reach, or thrive in, positions of power as long as their wealth is shameful or their opinions belittled. Executive feminism recognises that even wealthy and powerful women run into gender bias and the resulting clog in the pipeline affects all women.

“It is high time we moved away from gender and viewed people as individuals in a gender neutral workplace. Marcus comments concur saying, “Gender equality combines the thinking and experience of both men and women, creating diversity and balance and ultimately broadening the perspectives and capacity of our society for the better.”

“The new successful leader will be one who gives all people the right to perform and the permission to be fantastic, irrespective of whether they are male or female,” concludes Maroun.

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Issued for and on behalf of LRMG Performance Agency by Cathy Findley Public Relations