Why aren't women at the top yet?

After years of progress, the promotion of women to top jobs is slowing down. Why? Dr Lynda Gratton t

The issue of women in business has been down-graded recently in favour of the more urgent and fashionable cause of the environment. Most businesses feel they have done their bit. Fifty per cent of graduate recruits are women. Sorted. Can we change the subject?

Yet, unnoticed, the promotion of women in companies has slipped. Last year, there were fewer female executive directors (11) in FTSE 100 board rooms than in 2004 (13). Although 50 per cent of graduates in organisations are women, the figure falls to 30 per cent in management, and plunges to 15 per cent at senior executive level.

Dr Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at the London Business School (LBS), launched the Lehman Brothers Centre for Women in Business at the LBS earlier this month. She will be examining the causes of the female flight from the workplace. When the centre hosted its inaugural forum, for 180 companies, so many showed up that the doors had to be closed. No organisation wants to be labelled misogynist. Still, Gratton observed, there was only one man among the representatives. It is seen as a women's issue rather than one for humankind.

Gratton, 51, says that the failure of women to rise in companies is "shocking" and she would like the centre "to put a bit of fire under businesses". "Companies are prone to imitation and if you get a couple of high-ranking companies to do something you will get follow-up."

She is already talking of quotas and affirmative action. "We've made a mistake in the UK not to do as much as the US on affirmative action. The number of senior American and Canadian women in the UK right now is interesting. They came through affirmative action. In the UK, it is extremely difficult for women to get to the top."

Gratton is more savvy than many feminists. She makes the business case for championing women rather than a social or moral one. Just as the Stern report cited economics as the reason that we should address global warming now, Gratton declares that a business which rejects women reduces the pool of talent and demonstrably lacks creative energy. Offices without women are monotone.

Affirmative action works

Gratton is impatient with many of the myths about working women. She is an academic, and demands empirical research. "It would be like a doctor saying: 'Well, my Auntie Min says that when the moon is up is a good time to get rid of warts.' That is where we are with regard to women: about the same level of quackery." So far, she has found no evidence that men and women work differently as individuals - women are just as happy to take risks and are no more emotional.

The distinctive difference shows up when women are in charge of a group. Gratton claims that these teams tend to share knowledge and information more readily than those led by men. This is a huge competitive advantage. The buzzword for companies is "innovation" and "head of innovation" is a coveted new title. Many of the new heads of innovation are women, while almost all chief executives are men.

There is another reason the future may turn out to be female. The traditional hierarchical structure of companies is breaking down. Companies no longer provide all the services needed for their products. They outsource, they partner. Nokia has around 100 partnerships, notes Gratton. In this looser network, collaboration and co-operation become more important than the prized old virtues of assertiveness and decisiveness. Organis at ion al structure becomes less like the army, more like Wikipedia. Where wo-men are flourishing disproportionately is am-ong the entrepreneurs. The kit chen sink company is a closely watch-ed business model. It is obvious why it suits women to work for themselves. If women are running homes as well as working, then flexible hours are a crucial issue. Gratton claims that people who work from home are 20 per cent more productive and "working smart" is a female mantra. To most men, offices are a way of life; to many women, they are lost time. Commuting, socialising, hanging around the office in order to impress the boss: all this holds a particular agony for women.

Becoming an entrepreneur is the upside of women's opt-out from offices. But it is a route open to only a few, and is a counsel of despair. Gratton says that she is looking at affirmative action because 30 per cent is a proven magic number for minorities. Only when a minority within a workplace reaches this figure does it start to wield influence (interestingly, 38 per cent of the BBC's senior management are women, and the cultural effect of that is visible). Until then, senior women at work will remain a curiosity rather than a part of the executive structure, and young women will not be pulled through.

"For men to mentor women is difficult," says Gratton. "In my last job, I was considered high potential. The chief executive would take high-potential men out to dinner, but not me - of course, it was uncomfortable taking a young woman out to dinner. I have not been mentored or coached. That is not unusual. I have not worked in an organisation with senior women, so how could I have role models? Until we get more women at the top, things won't change."

More to the point, why should male bosses want things to change? They have an organisation built in their own image. They are surrounded by men who endorse them and are happy to socialise with them. They have wives at home who ensure the smooth running of their domestic lives. Plus, according to Gratton, there is a happy inverse work ethic at the top of the chain. It becomes a sign of power and confidence for bosses to take more holidays and leave early, unlike the junior workforce. Why disrupt all this for the vague promise of female creativity?

The most ingenious idea from the forum was that if companies are to change their structures and introduce flexible hours - the top priority for women - then it has to come from the chief executives. "Someone said: chief executives only really get it when they have daughters," says Gratton. "The ones with clever daughters who have just finished at Oxford and who are struggling with families and a job. Then the light bulb goes on. We should find out which chief executives have clever daughters . . ."

For queries about Centre for Women in Business, go to: http://www.london.edu/womeninbusiness.html