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How much longer will women be kept away from the top table?

Sep 30, 2012 Leadership, Sunday Nation

There is a simple, widely observable incongruity in the higher planes of business life. Where are all the women?

Specifically, where are all the women when it comes to decision-making and direction-setting? Look at the upper echelons of corporate life, and you will see only a few token feminine faces. This situation is found even in the world’s more mature economies: Italy, for example, has just 6 per cent of board positions taken by women; Germany has 16 per cent. Don’t even ask what the situation is in most parts of Africa, Asia or the Middle East.

Why should this be so? Ask a bunch of men, and you will get the same old tired answers: women are too emotional to make hard business decisions; they have too many children and take too much time off; they create bitchy, gossipy office environments; they don’t have the same drive and determination that men do to succeed.

I won’t even attempt to counter those arguments. They don’t belong in this age, even though they prevail in masculine circles. The truth is this: men have constructed the corporate world to suit themselves. The structures, norms, rituals, cultures and processes of business are all built for men, not women. Men have run the world for millennia, and they see no need to change that situation.

In some parts of the world, regulators have attempted to impose a correction: in Kenya, our new constitution demands that a proportion of senior government positions be reserved for women; in the European Union sanctions are planned for companies that do not meet a 40 per cent threshold of women directors.

Forcing men to behave is all well and good, but the real problem lies elsewhere: in blinkered minds. Richard Branson, iconic entrepreneur, pointed out something in his global column, featured in the Daily Nation earlier this week:

“Seventy percent of household purchasing decisions are made by women, according to the Boston Consulting Group. Those decisions are not just about grocery lists or kids’ clothes—women also choose big-ticket items such as cars and vacations. So, if 50% of the staff at a company is female, and women drive 70% of the buying decisions for its products, what possible rationale can senior management have for leaving women out of the corporate decision-making process?”

The finding that women drive purchasing decisions is vindicated by surveys worldwide: some results suggest that Branson’s figure may even be on the low side. Women have, cleverly and with the subtlety that escapes most men, been exercising “soft power” for a long, long time. All that’s changed is that this influence can now be measured.

So, if you’re a shareholder, a director, a business owner, think this one over: if women have such overwhelming influence in buying decisions; if women make up such a large chunk of the average workforce; what earthly reason can there be to keep them out of executive suites and boardrooms?

None that stands a moment’s scrutiny. Men are keeping women out of decision-making because they are labouring under the delusion that the world still favours patriarchy. It does not. As I have written on this page many times, women bring a whole new dimension to management and leadership: they are more naturally able to share, collaborate and find win-win solutions. I don’t know of a management team or board that has not benefited from giving women more seats at the table. Yet some of our male dinosaurs heading our institutions seem to miss every such point, no matter how made.

The change will happen anyway, folks. Women are now crowding middle management in Kenya – how long do you think you can keep them away from the top table? More importantly, why would you want to?

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