Monday, 22 October 2007

WISER - Leadership Rules

"A woman is like a tea bag- you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water." Eleanor Roosevelt.

The professional advancement of women (and minorities) in an organization often reaches a certain level, after which there appears to be a barrier that limits women from being promoted to higher positions. It is not through lack of experience or education that this occurs, but rather some other impediment that holds women back, a situation that is often referred to as the ‘glass ceiling’. Many people believe that women restrict themselves from taking on high level positions; however, there is also the perception that women who do hold such positions often do so to the detriment of the company. Dr. Michelle Ryan, a psychologist at the University of Exeter, has questioned the validity of such a statement, suggesting that women are often promoted to management roles only when a company is already struggling. In studying the performance of FTSE 100 companies in Britain in 2003 in the months preceding and following the appointment of both men and women to board positions, she found some interesting trends in the data. When the stock market was down, the companies that were performing relatively consistently appointed men to the board member positions while the companies that were struggling promoted women. After each appointment, the performance of these companies typically increased, although those with the women on board showed a much more dramatic turn around. When the stock market was up, the company performance after appointing a man was relatively stable. For the companies that promoted women under such conditions, their performance was more variable prior to the appointment, after which it was again relatively stable. From these results, Dr. Ryan concluded that it appears that women are more likely to be promoted to higher level positions when a company is performing badly. She says, “In this way, such women can be seen to be placed on top of a ‘glass cliff’, in the sense that their leadership appointments are made in problematic organizational circumstances and hence are more precarious.” What is not clear from this outcome is why such trends occur. Is it because women are perceived to perform better under crisis situations? Do women see such roles as an opportunity to prove themselves? Or are they simply being promoted to ‘scapegoat’ positions? The implications of such precarious promotions form the basis of Dr. Ryan’s ongoing research. From this study, however, it is apparent that the promotion of women to higher positions is often an effect rather than a cause of poor company performance.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

WISER - Shouldn't We Be?

"There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities...with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. ...the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described." Remarks from a speech given by Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University, at the NBER Conference in January 2005.

Although the above-mentioned speech ultimately led to Summers resignation, these sentiments are often shared by many people when attempting to explain the lack of women in high level positions. But rather than focusing on the reasons for the disparity, the first debate of the WISER Festival considered four possible alternatives for promoting women and subsequently increasing the percentage of women in academia. Prof. Janneke Gerards, a professor in constitutional and administrative law at Leiden University, proposed that 40% of scientific board and committee members should be women. She argued that more female representation will not only give alternative perspectives but also result in less gender bias when making decisions. Prof. Mineke Bosch, an associate professor in gender studies at the University of Maastricht, suggested that women should be made more visible by promoting them through collaborations, conferences and communication. Prof. Renate Loll, a professor of theoretical physics at Utrecht University, argued that we should raise our expectations of what women can achieve - 'believe in yourself, and all things are possible.' Prof. Yvonne Benschop, a professor of organisational behaviour at Radboud University Nijmegen, proposed that there should be a national mission for 'gender mainstreaming' by breaking down the 'ivory tower'. The festival participants were asked to vote on which proposition they preferred, with the initial count being in favour of Prof. Gerards. Many participants believed that if there was greater representation of women on boards and committees, then the other propositions would follow. This sparked further debating among the panel members and festival participants, where it was suggested that it is difficult to implement quotas. There was also strong support for 'crumbling the ivory tower' by making changes to the system. However, it was also argued that this requires one to already be in the system in order to be able to make such changes. Towards the end of the session, a second vote was cast, with the numbers then in favour of Prof. Bosch's proposal of creating visibility. This certainly requires less of a paradigm shift, but who is going to promote women? Overall, it was concluded that in one way or another, each of these propositions needs to be addressed in order to have greater representation of women in high level positions. The reasons for the lack of female academics may be multifaceted, but it is also apparent that there is no simple solution for changing the situation either.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Women in Science Education Research Festival - WISER

Last week, I attended the two day festival 'Women in Science Education and Research - WISER' in Maastricht. As mentioned in an earlier post, women hold approximately 25% of academic positions in the Netherlands, but only 10% of full professors are female. With 50% of university students being female, this begs the question 'Where did all the women go?' Over the two days, various issues were debated and discussed relating to the disproportion of women in academia and what can be done to change the status quo. Rather than trying to summarise the festival in one post, I intend to write a series of entries about some of the more interesting issues that were raised. Stay tuned for more...