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Female Leaders Must Wear a Male Mask, says Cass Lecturer

The marketing of MBAs and MBA-level jobs favor competitive males over female applicants

By  Rob Kirby

Wed Apr 20 2011

In the latest in a series of Cass Business School talks on Leadership, visiting lecturer Julie Verity claimed that women often need to act like males to get ahead in the workplace.

‘Women as Leaders’ took place last week and drew an audience of 50 (including a “vocal minority” of men). Verity and actress Phyllida Hancock explored how things are different for women in the workplace through a study of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

“We used the play to try and explain why organisations are dominated by men,” says Verity.

The plot of As You Like It was explained by Hancock, who related it to modern issues for women in management. Verity then gave her own take, claiming that women need to “wear a mask” when they first arrive at a new workplace to get the recognition they deserve.

In the play the main character, Rosalina, dresses as a man and finds that she is listened to more carefully and treated with greater respect – whereas her friend Celia, who stays dressed as a woman, is swept aside and ignored.

“Lots of it was about how women have to survive in the male world but must eventually take off the ‘mask’ or ‘male clothes’,” explains Verity.

“Shakespeare is saying men talk and listen to Rosalina when she's dressed male, and that as a woman you're invisible.

“Is this how it works in real organisations? Do women have to fit in with men to be heard? I think so.”

“The men that came wanted more explanation and challenged for more information on how to manage the problems we talked about. Very brave in a room with so many women!”

Verity says that she had the audience think about how organisations need to change to be equal.
“The ideal organisation for a man is one which has a hierarchy, that is competitive, single goal orientated, and where there are very strongly defined tasks and responsibilities. Men love to display and perform.”

“But women like to be more consensual. They like groups rather than individuals. They don't like status - they prefer prestige. This means that they love to do their job really well.”

“In this way, the whole system of applying for a job is male – look at the goal-orientated criteria.”

Verity cites the example of an American CEO in the City of London who recruits from UK Business Schools.

“When he advertised jobs, men would apply even if they only met 50% of the required criteria. Women wouldn't apply unless they met 99% of the criteria, and then they'd still be reluctant to come forward.

“Like Rosaline in As You Like It, Women have to behave in a way that is unnatural to them when applying. Biologically they are more tired, working harder for putting on a front – which is emotionally more stressful. To a man this is second nature, so they look better.”

“I think men are happy to do this because they're comfortable with hierarchy and status. But women are keener to be right for the role and to be selected because they’ll do a good job.”

“In the UK there are only two female CEOs in the FTSE 100. You don't automatically think of British female leaders. In the UK this partly comes down to the residual hierarchical nature of the business world – the US is a bit more equal because it’s successfully a meritocracy.”

Verity says that one of the solutions the UK could adopt, used by many companies in the US, is to avoid asking for name, sex or age on job application forms. “This is one reason why more women apply for senior positions in the US,” she says.

“On MBAs, we always get more men applying than women. It's really hard to get more than 20% of a class female at any school. This year at Cass we've got 38% as female for the first time. We even started a special scholarship awarded to one woman per intake.

“Just having girls in the room changes the conversation completely. We get a better balance of experience and opinions when looking at case studies, and an alternative to the blokes’ views.”

She adds that b-schools often send discouraging messages to potential female applicants.

“If you come into a business school lecture theatre it's like an arena. The setup is of competition, hard work and having to perform, which all plays to the male psychology.”

“Men are very happy to compete,” Verity says. “They want to compete with other men, not women. If they see their friends have an MBA then they feel they need it too. Women don't think like that - they don't want status they want prestige. If we can persuade women they can do their jobs better with MBAs then they'll take it. But we market MBAs as a route to a better job. Women don't want more for themselves, they want a grounded life.”

When women start work in a new job, they are often mistaken for lacking decisiveness and confidence because they take more time than men over things, Verity claims. She adds that this is because women take pains to reach a consensus in discussions.

“The lecture finished with a discussion about when women can take off the mask. When they have won the respect of their fellow men and they have proved themselves to be competent.

“Many experienced female professionals I know would say the rule of thumb is that you have to be twice as good as men to get noticed.”

“But if you can keep it up for long enough, you can earn their respect and reach a position where you can say 'please don't talk to me like that'.”

“The old boy network still rules in the UK. Men in their 40s and 50s don't think women want to work in senior positions, and their main experience of women has been of their wives, secretaries or daughters because they haven't lived lives of equal rank.”

But will it all change with generation Y?

“The signs are there – there are now more women than men in my law classes – but these problems have deep psychological roots. It could take at least 20 years for women to have an equal challenge to men.”

Until then, she says, businesswomen will be safest copying Rosalina and playing male when climbing the corporate ladder.

You can read an op-ed piece by Julie Verity predicting sex quotas for UK board-room positions by visiting her website

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