Women and their Relationship to Power

Women and their Relationship to Power

The progression of gender diversity within business leadership raises an important question: Do women have a different relationship and approach to positions of power than their male counterparts? To answer this question, Viviane De Beaufort went directly to the source, interviewing female board members, company directors, civil servants, politicians and experts in France and abroad, asking them how they felt about their role and the particular qualities they brought to it.

The resulting quantitative study, Women and Their Relationship to Power: Still a Taboo or a New Corporate Governance Model? – realized in partnership with Boyden Global Executive Search and in collaboration with Women In Leadership (WIL) – was presented this past Friday, November 16th, in the broader context of the Council on Business and Society where five of the world’s leading business schools sought to address issues of leadership and corporate governance. During this event, the subject of director gender quotas was addressed by a panel discussion moderated by Karin Thornburn of the Norwegian School of Economics, featuring speakers Noreen Doyle, Director, Crédit Suisse; Susan Lindenauer, Director Women’s Defense Funds and Professor de Beaufort who presented the results of her study.

Why is gender diversity – and specifically women’s relationship to power – an important issue today? Indeed, as more and more women are brought up into positions of power within organizations, there will be numerous challenges to the presence of women on boards.

Women and their ambiguous relationship with power

“As a professor of European law,” explains Professor de Beaufort, “I found myself conducting comparative studies regarding European business and governance issues and was drawn into the questions of gender diversity. Eventually, this led to the creation of the ESSEC Executive Education program Women be European Board Ready.”

“It was while leading this program that I began to notice participants rarely talked specifically about power. This was surprising to me because the workplace and boards are undeniably places of power and clearly these women wanted to take on roles of authority within business. Why this striking omission of the word power? Is the word still taboo?”

Professor de Beaufort’s study suggests that ambition still carries different connotations for women and men. In fact, many responses seemed to indicated that the battle for power was still perceived as a masculine one and one that women confront with difficulty.

Strikingly, a great majority of respondents stated that they did not build their career in connection with an aspiration to power. As one interview subject explains, “I never drove to become an Executive Director as a clear game plan, only looked for the opportunity to have a position that would allow me to influence and develop people independent of which position I could do that from.”

Another respondent reasoned that “we live in a male power place… women are not naturally considered as potential leaders by male CEOs because they are still driven by criteria based on “manhood” values and reflexes to promote what resembles them.”

Is a major problem facing women aspiring to positions of authority lie in the fact that they are trying to fit into the masculine model of power? “Some refuse to attribute specific qualities or behaviors to women, even while the dominant HR literature identifies in the female gender a style of leadership or intuitive moral qualities that are different,” explained Professor de Beaufort. “I believe there’s a risk that the female minority will attempt to conform to the male majority, ignoring the fact that women should have a right to exercise power differently. They should promote their unique values and their unique managerial practices.”

There are still many barriers today that make it more difficult for women to reach positions of power. But some of these barriers are self-applied. “In realizing this study, I decided to work closely with psychologists in order to better understand women, their relationship with power and how it differs from the masculine model. Results illustrated that there was some negative connotation attached to the term. For example, many women felt that power came at the cost of their serenity, they associated it with “power games” and felt that it could be isolating.”

That said, respondents were quick to identify “feminine” qualities that set their managerial qualities apart from their male counterparts. The study identified these qualities as a greater ability to listen, a capacity to more completely analyze subjects, a middle of the road perspective and daring to keep their ego out of the way.

“It’s hard to generalize,” says Professor de Beaufort, “but we found overall that women are franker, they have a real concern about making things move forward, and they feel strongly about ethics. They place a great deal of importance on perceived legitimacy.”

Generalization is made more difficult by the fact that many variations in approach are linked to the socio-cultural setting. Three poles stood out in the study which did not seem obviously linked to geographical zones, but more to prevalent governance traditions: an Anglo-Saxon world, a world of socialist origin and a world where the principle of equality between me and women is still facing a constitutional citizen battle. 

A question of quotas

The issue of gender quotas is very complex and one that Professor de Beaufort approaches with caution. “Although my expertise is focused to a large extent on gender issues, I’m hesitant when asked the question ‘quota or not,’” she explains. ”On the one hand, these types of regulations can have a ripple effect, forcing businesses to confront the issue and encouraging women to take on roles of authority because the path has been made possible. That said, they can sometimes also be the source of resentment.”

As one respondent puts it, “Quotas, by putting legal constraints, forces entities to think about gender issues even when they despise the issue and to put in place processes to identify females’ talents when they don’t… It also forces male leaders to think outside of the box on what a company needs at each level of their company and in particular at the top level. As they need to find women, they’re forced to modify their criteria of leadership (ex: time spent at the office, brutal behavior often confused with leadership…)”

But regardless of whether or not quotas hold the key to gender diversity on boards, the paradigm in which women exercise power is of the utmost importance. That is to say, a paradigm in which leadership integrates rationality and intuition and where the ideal manager of either gender blends stereotypically “make” skills (charisma, leadership, impartiality, decision-making capability…) with the female (rationality, empathy, listening, organization, knowledge…).

As Professor de Beaufort concludes, companies can no longer ignore the question of parity between men and women at the top of the hierarchical ladder. While the personal motivation of women seems to be better adapted to the more flexible company model, the development of new game-changing models will help overcome any persistent notions that still reject the power of women.

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