London Business School’s Global Leadership Summit was an opportunity to see senior executives and CEOs come together to talk about their views. It was fascinating stuff. We heard how Tim Breedon, a recent joiner to the Barclays Board, has put values at the centre of the bank’s transformation; how Unilever CEO Paul Polman is creating deep alliances with NGOs and multi-lateral organisations like the UN to work on some of the world’s most intractable problems; and how Aberdeen Asset Management’s CEO Martin Gilbert is particularly interested in investing in the ‘frontier markets’ of the world.
What was striking was that, although each of these speakers looked remarkably similar (dark suit, white shirt, blue/red tie, formal black shoes), when they described their stories, their unique perspectives became clearer. Polman described how his determination to form these alliances, particularly around poverty and climate change, is in part a promise to his children that he will try to leave the world a better place, while Gilbert’s fascination with ‘frontier markets’ came from his early childhood spent in Malaysia, and his familiarity with that part of the world.
While these men looked similar, over the course of the day their unique perspectives emerged. We might visualise senior men as a homogenous group, but those with a strong personal narrative are able to show their differences, revealing their uniqueness in the process.
So, what of women executives? At first glance, they are certainly a less visually homogenous group. Over the course of a month teaching at LBS I have had female corporate executives speak to my class attired in hippie beads, long skirts and cowboy boots, top to toe Chanel and 5-inch high Louboutins, sensible black trouser suits and white shirts, floral blouses and simple skirts… I could go on. But the point is that visually, these women are portraying themselves in their unique way. And like the senior executives at the Global Leadership Summit, they too have a unique narrative about how they see their business and the goals they have for it.
But here is where this marvellous female diversity gets lost. Rather than being defined by their distinct styles and unique narratives, women executives are most often typified by their private lives, with the dominant typologies going something like this:
Type 1: Has one child (late) and has found a way to make it work.
Type 2: Does not have children and works all the time.
Type 3: Has lots of children, works hard and possibly has a stay-at-home partner.
Type 4: Has decided not to return to full-time work and is trying to create a balance between family and work.
The simplicity of this typology has, I believe, two profoundly negative implications for women.
First, it constantly draws the debate about an executive woman towards how she behaves with regard to these typologies. By doing so, this sucks all the life out of much more interesting debates, such as those I heard among the male executive speakers at the GLS yesterday. About what they believe, how they would like to make a contribution to the challenges of the world, what their strategy is for the business
Second, the very simplicity of these typologies, and the focus they bring to a woman’s private life, prevents many from recognising the real differences between women. This is apparent not just in the private life typology, but also in the simplicity with which ‘feminine traits’ are described. Of course some women are sensitive, empathic and caring. And others are ambitious, aggressive and independent. But femininity is not a spectrum, and it certainly can’t be reduced to typology.
We fail women when we fail to see the real and relevant differences between them. More than men, women signal these differences in how they are choosing to present themselves visually, from the hippie beads to the trouser suits. But that does not mean their uniqueness is superficial. It is a rich product of their history, their interests, and their hopes and aspirations. So we can’t let our constant focus on their private lives and our stereotyping of their working traits overpower the uniqueness of what they believe, how they perform and how they want to make the world a better place.