Why assumptions that women ‘Fall in Love’ at work hinders senior male sponsorship

WomenNobel Laureate Tim Hunt has quite rightly come in for criticism for his comments about his ‘problem with girls in the lab’. But it does unearth a vain assumption about the helplessness of women falling under the spell of their male colleagues. But the bigger problem is that these kinds of assumptions, held by many senior men and women as well, hold women back from networking closely with men or benefiting from their sponsorship. While Hunt is in the firing line, these assumptions are not limited to science. As the Centre for Talent Innovation found in their research on mentoring and sponsorship, a majority of senior men are concerned about obviously helping junior women for fear of it being misconstrued.

For example, the Washington Post recently detailed how common this is in US government. Female and male congressional staffers on the Hill were surveyed by the National Journal about access to their bosses. They found clear evidence, from both male and female staffers, that women were being being barred from spending time one on one, having closed door meetings or even in some cases travelling with their male bosses. Ostensibly, for some male bosses this is to ‘protect’ both parties from any ‘misunderstandings’ and suspicious onlookers. However, as Catherine Rampell wrote in the piece: ‘These rules- which inherently sexualise what should be mundane work interactions – seemed predicated on the premise that either all women are devilish temptresses irresistible to their libidinous bosses or that all women are liars who will fabricate sexual harassment charges at the slightest provocation.’

As in the case of every man and woman who eschews workplace interaction with the opposite sex, it disproportionately limits the careers of women who are more likely to need senior male support to progress. Sensitive and strategic decisions are the most likely kind to be made behind closed doors – an impossibility for a woman to influence if she has to be chaperoned or is excluded. As Rampell explained: ‘No wonder female staffers earn, on average, $6000 less than their male counterparts , a disparity driven by the fact women are underrepresented in senior positions ….which will continue as long as predominantly male bosses insist on never becoming true mentors, confidants and sponsors to women’. The best advice: Create a culture where interactions between men and women are encouraged and discussed as normal. And if that doesn’t work, as Rampell suggests, remind men: “There’s no better way of cultivating suspicions of lechery than announcing to the world you can’t be left alone with a lady’. Certainly, this was the same comment raised by senior people we know after Hunt announced the frequency with which ‘women fall in love with him or he falls in love with them’.

‘Queen Bee’ myth quashed

Mean bossOne of the most commonly asked questions I receive is ‘why are female bosses mean to junior women?’ They’re not – in fact, they are no ‘meaner’ than male bosses. It’s more likely we have higher expectations of ‘nurturing’ behaviour in women than we do of male bosses. In fact, the latest research bears out that women actually do better when they work for companies with a female CEO.

Columbia University looked at top 1500 management teams over a 20 year period and found that when female CEOs were appointed to an organisation, other women were more, rather than less likely to attain other senior positions. Additionally, female CEO’s pay higher wages to all employees, and reduce the gender wage gap to just 1.5%. However, there’s a ‘sting in the tail’ of the Queen Bee. When a woman was appointed to a top job, but not the CEO position, the chances of other women following her into the upper echelon were 50% less.

So what’s going on? After looking at the evidence, the authors concluded women at this second type of organisation are part of an ‘implicit quota’. In The Times, Sian Griffiths explained how the authors felt: ‘While firms gain legitimacy from having women in top management, the value of this legitimacy decreases with each additional woman, whereas the perceived costs, from the perspective of the male majority in top management, increases with each woman.’ In fact, it’s perceived that majority group resistance increases when women (and one could argue any other perceived minority group) grows to even just 20%. In fact, women in senior jobs may indeed themselves be subconsciously accepting this ‘implicit quota’ and therefore any other women who come to the table are a potential threat – which may be where any resistance to other junior women comes from. So, it seems the only person who thinks it’s not enough to have a few tokens at the table are the female CEO’s – the same people we’ve historically maligned as unhelpful Queen Bee’s.

Wilma Mankiller or Harriet Tubman: Who’s your pick for the US Currency Cover Star?

0326toonwasserman copyThe nonprofit group Woman on 20s is running a U.S. campaign to put a woman on the $20 bill. This reminds us of the recent UK controversy when the Bank of England decided to replace Charles Darwin with Jane Austen on the £10 note. It’s disappointing that women and ethnic minorities still haven’t featured on currency in either country – other than the Queen, who is only ‘entitled’ to the honour because she holds a hereditary title.  This campaign highlights a great opportunity as the US will soon be marking the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

At Female Breadwinners, our vote in the US is for Wilma Mankiller, first female Cherokee chief. Her name alone sends a strong message! It would be poetic justice for her to replace Andrew Jackson, who sponsored  the Indian Removal Act which led to massive Native American genocide. Harriet Tubman would also be a fantastic choice, as one of the earliest American heroes who led escaped slaves to their freedom – under the nose of Abraham Lincoln administration, who sits comfortably on the $5 bill.

So far, being a ‘currency cover star’ has been a ‘boy’s club’, most often politicians. At Female Breadwinners, we applaud this latest campaign but ask: Why should we be satisfied with just one woman? Wouldn’t banknotes featuring more women and ethnic minorities reflect the diversity in each country better? Get involved and vote as every woman on the list is worthy of being celebrated.

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