Strategic decisions centre on acumen — not gender

Women in business seem to demand consideration of their ‘women-ness’ and their fitness to hold high office, but there’s an unhealthy tension between the two.

I have a testy relationship with Women’s Month, and it seems the feeling is mutual. Despite being an experienced speaker with engagements around the world, I never seem to crack the nod to speak at Women’s Month events in SA. There’s possibly a reason for that.

In a chapter, Backwards and in High Heels in my book, A Fox’s Tale, I wrote the following about the “empowerment” of women: “The term suggests a helping hand, as if women should be ‘allowed’ to do what they want to do, or that they be given an opportunity while others stand aside. That’s not an opportunity, that’s getting a hand up.”

I can imagine that didn’t go down well with women who feel they should fill more seats in South African boardrooms. They have a case. Over the past 17 years, I have guided the strategic conversations of executive teams of hundreds of companies around the world, across a diverse array of sectors. Many of those companies have been South African, and I can probably count on one hand those that had anything close to an equal representation in terms of gender. Is that a problem? No, and there’s a reason for that.

When I facilitate strategic conversations, the onus is on me as the facilitator and strategist to retain a soft but authoritative rein on a conversation that can become heated and confrontational. I am often the only woman in the room, and that places me in a position some may consider potentially problematic. And yet, in all those hundreds of strategic conversations, not once have I had a problem. I suspect the reason for that is I never make it an issue that I am the only woman there. I don’t demand special treatment or expect any consideration of matters of “women-ness”. I am simply seen as a strategist and facilitator.

Women in business seem to demand consideration of their “women-ness” and their fitness to hold high office, but there’s an unhealthy tension between the two. The concept of “women-ness” is a cultural one inculcated into women, often by women themselves, and so women play a role in being the victims of culture that many claim they are. They buy and support women’s magazines that perpetuate “women-ness” as defined by fashion, food, looking slimmer and younger, and “finding” themselves.

This is all frivolous in the often brutal world of big business. Women want to be seen as different from and equal to men. And they are. But high-level business is about what you bring to the table, and if women continue to bring the baggage of the popular concept of “women-ness”, they risk losing the game.

Demanding that the game be changed to “accommodate” them will not help. If there’s a glass ceiling in business leadership, it’s probably frosted, with a delicate hue of pink.

Success in strategic decision-making depends on diversity of thinking, not diversity in chromosomes. Sometimes there is a correlation between the two, but assuming the relationship is causal — that an extra X chromosome naturally gives the holder a different perspective on strategy — warrants firm rebuke.

Robust strategic conversations demand that everyone involved has a clear understanding of the differences between strategy, tactics and operations, and a respect for agility and variegation in thinking.

This does not depend on gender. I have been part of highly successful strategic discussions with all-male executive teams; I have also had to dig deep into my skill reserves to save a strategic discussion that risked beaching itself on repressed issues of gender diversity.

I am not advocating that women should be disallowed from boardrooms. C-suites should have more women, but not because they are women.

The path to CEO, chief finance officer, chief information officer and chief operating officer certainly shouldn’t be cleared for women, and they don’t deserve special treatment. I have worked with women CEOs who have shown exceptional leadership skills, but it had nothing do with the fact that they were women; they were just good at their job.

I am aware of the issues of patriarchy that still pervade certain cultures. Boardrooms cordoned off by old-school ties are falling by the wayside. Executive teams made up almost exclusively of old white males are being killed off because of a lack of variation in their thinking that has rendered them incapable to adapt to the rapidly changing world.

In August, companies will laud women within their ranks who have cracked the nod for senior positions. The subtle subtext is that they are, in some way, disabled and that they should therefore be celebrated for their remarkable achievement. That’s condescending, and should be rejected. But so too should the notion that women should be appointed to senior positions in business purely to balance some scorecard.

Originally published in Business Day, 10th August 2017.