Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In Conversation with Germaine Greer: The “Homosocial” World of Power

In Germaine Greer’s view, one of the main obstacles for women is that men are homosocial, i.e., have social non-sexual relationships with members of their own sex, while women are heterosocial, i.e., have non-sexual relationships with both men and women. Men socialize in separate spheres and build their power base in a world that remains largely elusive and inscrutable to women. Without a power base to stand behind them, women can’t withhold approval or say “no”.

And unfortunately, she says, “the corporate world changes women more quickly than women can change the corporate world." To make progress, we need to find a new way.

I was lucky enough to sit next to Germaine at yesterday’s Luncheon Society event. Whether you agree with her or not, she is a quip machine, describing banking as a form of “fiscal pornography” and the corporate world as "profoundly masculinist", where women still need to be a "man's woman". She also decried Michelle Obama’s pose as the “face of receptivity”. Germaine would clearly prefer that all women hew to their own ambition without spending so much time worrying about their romantic relationships with men.

"I only wear clothes with holes in them and women should stop worrying about their next purse," she declared. If more of us had Germaine's humor and mind, I suspect we would all do the same.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Dynamic World of Women and Work

In Richard Florida’s latest article in the Atlantic, “How the Crash Will Reshape America" he predicts the US population will “be sparser in the Midwest and also, ultimately, in those parts of the Southeast that are dependent on manufacturing. Its suburbs will be thinner and its houses, perhaps, smaller. Some of its southwestern cities will grow less quickly. Its great mega-regions will rise farther upward and extend farther outward. It will feature a lower rate of homeownership, and a more mobile population of renters. In short, it will be a more concentrated geography, one that allows more people to mix more freely and interact more efficiently in a discrete number of dense, innovative mega-regions and creative cities.”

These changes reflect the needs of a changing workforce, one that requires an emphasis on talent-rich ecosystems and an ever greater emphasis on the intangible sector of the economy, ie, engineering, design and professional occupations.

There are also dramatic changes looming for the gender landscape of the US job market. According to a recent article in the New York Times, more men are losing jobs than women in this recession. And, this may be the tip of the iceberg. According to the US Department of Education, the number of women with graduate and professional degrees is projected to grow by 16 percent over the next decade, while the number of men with these degrees is projected to grow by 1.3 percent. (Silvia Hewlett – Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, p 15)

With the future economy’s greater emphasis on the knowledge economy, women will be garnering a greater proportion of highly skilled jobs vis-à-vis men. And given that the Millenial generation holds more egalitarian gender views, (which are an important determinant of the wage gap - see my December 8 post "Will Stay at Home Boyfriends End the Wage Gap" below) the wage gap is likely to lessen.

These changes do not necessarily speak to progress for women in becoming top wage earners or joining the ranks of top management. It clearly speaks to solving the pipeline issue, but pipeline alone will not change the gender composition of top jobs. Companies need to focus their energies on retention and promotion of mid-level women. This means developing women leaders through skill building, managing conflict and ensuring that their jobs are satisfying. According to Sylvia Hewlett's book "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps", 52% of women in business leave their jobs because their careers are unsatisfying.

Part of the solution is moving companies from a view of compliance vis-a-vis diversity to a view of financial performance. At a recent meeting of 25 senior executives, I mentioned a Catalyst study which showed that having women in top management made a huge difference in financial performance. As far as I could tell, noone in the room had heard of the study or even the hypothesis and confirmation that women at the top results in improved financial performance. (This better performance probably reflects higher retention rates for both men and women and the evidence that diverse groups are better at solving complex problems.) The group, all men with one exception, felt very strongly in favor of a diverse workforce. This desire was not expressed in terms of goals around performance. They expressed an inherent interest in diversity and a couple mentioned that their own job performance was tied, in part, to achieving diversity at their companies. For even greater impact, senior executives need to link gender diversity and the bottom line. Otherwise, it will be hard to muster the necessary commitment to address women's virtual absence at the top.