‘Sexual Display’ Is NOT What’s Holding Back Female Execs

Roy Lichtenstein Drowning Girl

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This week we heard a different and pretty controversial twist on the tired women-on-boards debate. The reason women will never succeed at the top, explained Steve Moxon, a researcher, is because men and women are engaged in ‘sexual display’ around the board table .The man competes for attention, the woman backs off from the competition, and hence, begins the start of her own demise at the top, the self-described academic said.

I, a woman, and a woman on a board, can assure Mr Moxon I don’t back off, and I don’t flirt with my colleagues either. I’ve seen colleagues who do this in the past and it’s just embarrassing.

I believe one of the reasons – among many – for women not being fully represented on boards today is due to them showing their feelings and emotions. We’re naturally seen as the human-focused of the sexes, but males can see this as a weakness and can try to belittle their female counterparts.

This played out recently when we revised budgets for 2013. The board made the final cuts a few weeks back and unfortunately we had to lose heads in the end.

It never gets easier to have to announce to people that their jobs are at risk, and particularly with Christmas drawing close. I invited them into the boardroom last Thursday and took them through the business figures which led to our decisions; and the confirmation that I’d lose three roles within the team. Watching their faces drop and look sharply at me – as if in disbelief – was tough.

I could feel the tension and I eventually left the room, saying I would be around for anyone who needed a private chat. Later, I talked to the individuals separately, and was able to talk them through the process and what their options would be if they were made redundant. It’s satisfying to know that with a human touch, you can turn around a hard message and help soften the blow.

They say in business you must never let your heart rule your head, and our fellow board men seem to have that down to a tee. Their team announcements were clinical and without emotion. There was no offer to take questions. There was coldness about the way in which the news was delivered and I couldn’t help thinking I wouldn’t like to be in those other teams.

For me, when it comes to people, it’s all about the heart. It’s the people who are the heart of the business and need to be given some – even in the most awful of situations. There’s a way to do that I believe, without losing professionalism, or being viewed as a weak leader by male counterparts. To show you care during redundancy situations doesn’t take a lot, but can mean a huge amount to the affected individuals. I would never want to be seen as some corporate boss reading from a transcript without showing any level of emotion.

It’s in situations like this that I believe women on the board excel. In an age where employee engagement is talked about, it’s the communication of messages; positive and negative and how the colleagues are made to feel that drives how they view the company.

For those males who see us females as weak for being the heart of the business, I challenge them to see the organisation differently than the days of old when it was accepted to be assertive, aggressive and ruthless. Today, where the people are the business, it’s us women who can encourage the very highest performance by getting behind the real people in business, and that’s trait not easy to master.

Board Babe sits on the executive board of a multinational company with more than 10,000 employees. In her weekly blog, she reveals the ups and downs of being a woman at the top in a corporate environment.