In order to increase the proportion of women in management positions, a successful technique is that older, more experienced and higher-ranked men promote them. This is effective and seems obvious but there are ambivalences and challenges.
Male managers in Swiss companies are committed to promoting women. This is what our survey of almost 1,200 managers revealed:
Women are presumed to be more hesitant
This is because managers often see women as “reserved” when it comes to the possibility of being in leadership positions. Leadership positions are generally filled according to the similarity principle: "That means that if you have loud men at the top who are loud and shout, then they bring in people who are also loud and shout," says one manager. Challenging this mechanism of aggressive communication, of the alpha male who beats his chest, is the goal of male managers when they promote women.
What is necessary for this to happen? Clearly, one's own leadership mandate must be taken more seriously by approaching women directly, offering support, "picking them up a bit more, clarifying needs and then perhaps taking them by the hand more", as one manager puts his own task. In addition, it is also about showing that they are welcome in this - still existent - man's world. Managers must be able to inspire women to the point where they confidently say: "I would like to have your job one day at some point in the future".
But isn’t "forcing someone to be successful", patronising? Managers ask themselves whether they are really doing their female employees a favour. Especially with perceived physically fragile women, a manager is "afraid that this person will break" and wonders: "If she is alone in the management team of sixty men...will she survive? But then if you try to protect her, that's even worse!" The male leaders here see very clearly the challenges that (can) exist for women. At the same time, they realise that wanting to protect someone means assuming that the person is weaker and cannot stand up for themselves.
Traditional gender images
The above image of women as “delicate flowers”, and potential patronization that may ensue, can hinder the promotion of women. It is a dilemma that potentially entrenches traditional gender images: "That is possibly the cardinal error. Because it is then men who select women for promotion and define what promotion actually means," one manager says. Mentoring in particular is viewed critically in this context, because according to one man, the assumption behind it is: "Women are just not that self-confident, so you have to provide them with mentors and then it will work out". The male managers are thus aware of the difficulties of the existing conditions and the need to provide mentors and role models - but how can this be changed?
One manager suggests promoting women on an equal footing: "Up to now, men have promoted women as if they were their daughters. But they should promote them as if they were their sisters. You have to look at women as a peer and promote them there too". Although this view sounds very plausible and appealing, another manager sees a problem in it at the same time: "Because of the ideal image, where we now want to have mixed genders, do I now promote my competitor? That's unnatural! I find that an excessive demand!"
Promotion at eye level
One manager suggests promoting women on an equal footing: "Up to now, men have promoted women as if they were their daughters. But they should promote them as if they were their sisters. You have to look at women as peers and promote them there too". Although this view sounds very plausible and appealing, another manager sees a problem with this more egalitarian position: "Because of the ideal image, where we now want to have mixed genders, do I now promote my competitor? That's unnatural! I find that an excessive demand!"
Resolving the dilemma of Paternalism
But how should these dilemmas be dealt with? The concept of "Gender Inclusive Leadership" provides a path: women must be promoted and supported, but at the same time fears must be taken into account and existing challenges must be resolved. Those who are concerned that a particular work culture might be too "rough" for woman should consider whether this prevailing culture is not also counter intuitive for men, too. Do we want to maintain work practices that are purely founded on traditional masculine qualities (ex. beating your chest) or can we evolve as a team and become more inclusive?
Against the danger of paternalism, it is a good idea to get women and men talking to each other – communication is key! If we exchange different perceptions and possible solutions, measures can be made that suit both sexes. An understanding of the perceived ambivalences, complexities and challenges leads to clarification and knowledge that these systemic cultural issues can not be changed overnight. In this way, more male leaders might feel that the issue of equality in the workplace is an issue for everyone which deserves authentic consideration and that we might begin by having open, honest and direct conversations about what is best for everyone.
Overall, it remains to be noted that it cannot be a matter of adapting women to the given circumstances – of expecting women to act more like (traditionally defined) men. Instead of looking at the ascension of women in the workplace as a threat to individual professional advancement, we might look at it as collective and creative problem solving. Instead of looking at women as either equal sisters or unequal daughters – as being dangerous competitors - we might like to see them as collaborators possessing valuable problem-solving skills.. Through reflection and exchange about ambivalences and challenges leadership practices and philosophies can be reshaped. In this way, the corporate culture of the organization can evolve enabling equal opportunities and shared advantages for all.
We are pleased that the Handelszeitung as our project partner published this article in the print edition (please reset link) on February 25, and in the online edition on 28.