Why more women should run businesses

Many are hired but few are chosen for the top spots, but do women want the top spots?

Early in 2007, the executive search firm Rosenzweig & Company reported the number of women heading Canada's 100 biggest publicly traded companies had tripled! Of course, the report went on, that brought the number up to three.

Half of the students enrolled in the Masters in Leadership program at Royal Roads University are women. So are half the students in the MBA program. And yet Victoria's Shelley Zapp is the only female amongst the 14 subsidiary presidents of a multi-billion-dollar international corporation.

Further north, there seems to be more progress. Campbell River's film commissioner Joan Miller is one of four women on the board of eight directors of the Association of Film Commissioners International.

Politically, women remain so underrepresented that the New Democrats are contemplating cash bonuses for ridings that nominate women. On the face of it, evidence everywhere of discrimination: but are men doing the discriminating, or women?

And what is Canada missing by virtue of underutilizing half its talent pool? Do women make as good leaders as men, or better under some circumstances or how about under most?

A 2006 survey of employers and employees across the United Kingdom and sponsored by BT was widely heralded by news headlines such as "BT says women make the best bosses."

Women, specifically women over 50, "will be the best bosses, in the future," because they were judged the most trusting of employees. BT"s director of people and policy, Caroline Waters, said the study stressed the importance of those "soft" skills. "The emphasis," she said, put on trust and strength of relationship between employers and employees points to the fact that wo,en, and in particular women over 50, are the ideal management role model in this increasingly flexible business world."

According to the Conference Board of Canada's report on its recent Women's Executive Forum, in discussing a broad range of public issues, "most of the women leaders emphasized the 'soft' side of leadership, stressing vision, communication, relationships, passion values and integrity.Traditional leadership attributes, such as the capacity to prioritize and execute, received less attention."

When asked specifically whether women made better leaders, "some felt that women are more likely to possess qualities (such as empathy) that would potentially make for better leadership, the general consensus was that in fact women are different but not necessarily better leaders than men."

Until and throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century, male business and political leaders maintained that women are just too different from men, that females couldn't lead effectively in those male-created milieus. Girls didn't have the financial skills to manage large businesses. They'd leave to get married and have babies. They'd cry if confronted.

Political pressure and legislation eventually drove those ideas out. Or underground.

Then in the 1990s came the theory that yes, women and men were different, and women had an advantage with their indirect decision-making and consensual management style. So now, more than half a decade into the twenty-first century, women should have taken their share of leadership in business.

A look at the statistics in almost any industry says not. Is there still discrimination? Shelley Zapp isn't so sure. "Everything is there for the taking, " says Zapp, president of Agresso North America, a subsidiary of Unit 4 Agresso headquartered in the Netherlands. But women, perhaps, are not as confident or aggressive at going after the corner offices. Not that Zapp feels particularly cocky. Her background is in software, not presidency. But as a manager, her organizational skills caught the attention of the right people and they chose her for the job more than three years ago.

"I have a feeling that men get ahead from their accomplishments and also from their networking, the politics of knowing the right people," she says. "Women get ahead through hard work."

Allan Cahoon, president of Royal Roads University and long-time researcher of gender differences in behaviour, says that as one moves up in a hierarchy, the criteria for what constitutes leadership become more subjective. Since men have traditionally been the ones in leadership positions, they can see the potential for success in people like themselves: in Calvin Klein rather than Liz Claiborne.

The Conference Board's Women's Forum report concurs. "It is a fact," it states, "that senior male executives often identify and nurture young men, while women miss out on opportunities for informal mentoring."

While legislation and social pressure have removed many of the overt obstacles to women in the boardroom, Cahoon notes that discrimination is now much more insidious. There are nominal shifts in the numbers of women at the top, he says, but even in organizations dominated by females, like education or health, they don't occupy proportional roles in leadership positions. And nobody wants to say it's because they're women. That, Cahoon says, would be an admission that no amount of education, skill or hard work will allow the individual do to achieve her goals.

Cahoon has been running long-term studies into gender differences in business since 1978. In a recent survey, he compared equal numbers of men and women in each of three types of management positions, from first-line supervisors to senior executives. When he asked "Have opportunities for women improved in your organization?" five of the six groups said "Yes." The single dissenting group was the female executives.

Other research has shown that women executives don't stay in those positions as long as men do. Once they're in, Cahoon says, they find that the organization isn't what they thought, the environment not what they wanted. So it's harder for them to get in, and the turnover rate is higher.

Also, many women realize before they get it that the job isn't what they want. In the female-dominated field of education, for example, women make up only 20 percent of school principals. Cahoon thinks many women teachers just aren't interested in administration. They went into education because they wanted to teach and they achieve success by becoming better at it. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to measure their own success by their rank in the organizational hierarchy. Whether one gender does the job better is immaterial. Men want the job more.

North Island Film Commissioner Joan Miller agrees. When she began working in the film industry in the early '90s, most commissioners were men. Now most are women. The men who have stayed on the job tend to be provincial film commissioners, who spend more time working the financial side, like tax credit systems, while the women fill the "hands-on" posts, balancing the needs of their communities and film makers.

"There's a nurturing factor to the job," she says. "I have to talk to everyone, have a relationship with everyone."

At the same time, she has seen the like-attracts-like that Cahoon described. "I can open the doors and I can get there," Miller says, "but other people listen because it's going to benefit them. [I] have to work hard to break through the barrier. Men walk through the door and establish the relationship more easily."

When Shelley Zapp was building her management team, she didn't have any criteria except skills. For Zapp it was all about who could get the job done. She hired two women and three men and her business has doubled in the last year.

Yet she, like Miller, acknowledges the importance of making connections. "Women need to network more," she says bluntly, while admitting that it's not one of her own strengths.

"There is an old boys' network," Miller says. "And it doesn't necessarily have to be made up of boys."