Light bulb’ moment from Gender Balanced Leadership seminar
A range of companies from multinationals to sole entrepreneurships were represented by 100 senior professionals on 3 June – 70 women and 30 men – attending the Amsterdam venue where Dr Dianne Bevelander headed the third edition of the RSM Erasmus Business Series, Gender Balanced Leadership: creating value, organised by Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). The audience listened – and contributed – to a thought-provoking discussion of professional perceptions of women and how all businesses can implement strategies to better utilise this untapped talent pool.
Does a fish notice the water? Dr Dianne Bevelander crafted a metaphor: executives of both genders swim in a sea of unreasoned professional bias. “The moment you appreciate the water – become truly conscious of your environment – you have choice,” said Dr Bevelander to the sell-out event’s audience. “You can choose to take it for granted, or ignore what is happening around you and dismiss it, or you can choose to learn more and include [that knowledge] in your repertoire and act in response to it.”
The event was extremely well received, being described as “an inspiring seminar on a topic that needs to be addressed,” by attendee Carolien Brouwer, a product manager from ThyssenKrupp. The Erasmus Business Series seminar was just one event to be organised this summer by RSM’s Executive Education department, which also offers short and open programmes on a range of subjects and skills in Rotterdam and Amsterdam.
Women at board level corresponds to business success
Dr Bevelander pointed out that promoting women is not only ethical, it pays off. “Organisations with the strongest cultural and financial performance also have the highest proportion of women on their executive boards.” Although she cautioned that correlation does not equal causation, the numbers presented by Dr Bevelander were striking. Quoting from a 2012 Grant Thornton business report, she stated: “Businesses with a greater proportion of women on their boards outperform rivals in terms of returns on investment capital (66% higher), returns on equity (53% higher) and sales (42% higher).” They are also thought to ‘show better attention to audit and risk oversight’. Gender diversity not only promotes a shift in business culture, it also “mirrors the market: women control about 70% of global consumer spending.”
Misrepresentation and myth representation
On a conscious level, most savvy executives recognise the importance of gender diversity. Yet in 27 European countries, women fill only an average of 11% of senior executive roles. This, says Dr Bevelander, stems from the subconscious gender bias we all have. While 72% of employers (male and female) hired a hypothetical male candidate based only on his resume, only 42% of employers hired a woman with exactly the same hypothetical resume. While women are rated more highly than men in many of the areas that define good management, in areas concerned with risk both men and women gravitated towards male leaders. “As Northwestern University’s Professor Alice Eagly has suggested, women are not generally undervalued but they are naively and incorrectly regarded as deficient in some key qualities needed to exercise power over others”
Part of this perception comes from the way each gender forms relationships. Dr Bevelander terms these emotional bonds (women) versus functional bonds (men). Women describe their day not only in terms of events but how they felt about each event. Men describe the event only: “What did I do this weekend? I played golf.” While emotional bonds are extremely effective in creating trust and building teams, they may inadvertently suggest a vulnerability that should not be implied but one that leads to questioning leadership ability.
“Carmen [a hypothetical colleague] is having a difficult time at home and she discusses this as natural emotional bond building rather than seeking to hide the fact,” suggested Dr Bevelander. “Although the situation may be experienced by her no differently than for a man, the emotional openness leads to comments like ‘poor Carmen, go easy on her, she’s in the middle of a divorce’. Now imagine Michael over here has a job that would be perfect for Carmen. But what has he concluded about her? She’s emotionally vulnerable.”
This was one of several ‘light bulb moments’ during the seminar. Among the audience, glances were exchanged, eyes widened, and heads nodded in understanding and agreement. At the post-seminar networking drinks, this moment was most often nominated as the one that began a personal shift in thinking about professional women.
Small steps forward
Dr Bevelander’s strategies for encouraging gender diversity were both simple and highly effective. The most important of these was simply: kindness. “If we talk about Carmen again, let’s say only ‘Carmen is a superstar. She’s going through a divorce but you’d never know it.’ Let’s promise ourselves to speak positively about women or not speak at all.”
A full report of Dr Dianne Bevelander’s presentation to the Erasmus Business Series seminar is available to read here. Also nice to read the published article "Women mean business".
Please find the link to the EBS 3 photos here.
For more information about RSM Executive Education programmes and courses, see www.rsm.nl/executive.
About the RSM Erasmus Business Series
The RSM Erasmus Business Series is a thought-provoking, impactful, and interactive series of free seminars covering a range of business topics. Each seminar aims to inspire senior professionals, and develop their understanding of current business issues. The series is organised by the department of Executive Education at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM).
For more information on this seminar or the speaker, please contact Maja Cerim.