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Michael Page
Michael Page

Originally posted on 14 January 2020

Michael Page is Professor Extraordinaire at Stellenbosch Business School, Dean of Executive Education at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Professor of Finance and Management at Bentley in the USA. He’s also Head of Research at ECWO, bringing thirty years as a business school academic on three continents to the role – along with extensive experience in business (including senior partner in a small consulting business that advised organisations on maximising their human and social capital). In this wide-ranging and highly insightful interview, Professor Page gives insight into the importance of active engagement, ECWO’s upcoming research investments and why men must step up to the plate - now!

You’re an advocate for diversity and inclusion. Can you give some insight into how your personal and professional journey has contributed to this?

Although not quite - I don’t come from an affluent family - I am pretty close to the poster child of advantage. An only son of a middle income white South African family, born in the 1950s. As all who know the apartheid system can fully appreciate, this conferred certain significant advantages on me throughout my childhood and into the formative years of my professional career. I certainly worked hard for what I have achieved but, sadly, it was only as my outlook became increasingly global that I truly began to appreciate how these advantages narrowed the gap in the rungs of the so-called corporate ladder.

The lesson: Recognising advantage is not a denial of effort to achieve, rather it is an accelerant to achievement.

You have a particular research interest in the challenges facing minorities and women in career progression in organisations. Why is this area of research important – to you, to the academic community and to society more broadly?

My burgeoning interest in this area has come about through an increased recognition that challenges faced by individuals who are not part of the ‘dominant coalition’ are often not recognised by that coalition because they overweight the individual aspects at the expense of the systemic. What I mean by this is that members of the dominant coalition are themselves largely unaware of the charity they extend to ‘their own’, that they don’t to ‘outsider. Let me illustrate this with the case of a young male business associate professor who applies for promotion. He has the support of his senior—largely male—colleagues, but fails to get promoted. The consequence … his senior colleagues who supported him rally around him and say “don’t worry, those idiot administrators wouldn’t recognise a great academic if they bit them. We are behind you and will be when you next apply”. Although disappointment at the failure to be promoted doesn’t vanish, it is greatly diminished by being externalised. What about the female colleague? She gets denied promotion and there is a deafening silence. Not because the senior men don’t support her but because they don’t naturally identify and know how to console without being paternalistic. There is nothing intentional or malicious, but the reality is the ‘minority’ feel far more alone than the member of the dominant coalition does. The second order consequence is that we don’t come back for more and members of our ‘tribe’ observe the pattern and react accordingly.  

The lesson: Challenges facing minorities and women in career progression are not an individual thing - they are systemic and require a systemic solution. Research into diversity needs to move beyond that to a far greater focus on inclusion. Inclusion requires the active participation of the ‘dominant coalition’.

As head of research, you play an important part in ECWO’s strategy. Can you give us some insight into this for 2020?​

ECWO has three arrows in its quiver for change—advocacy, education, and research! Both our education programmes and the advocacy work we do needs to be informed by research. And this research needs to be grounded in the real experiences of the members of an ever-expanding network. Lasting and transformative change only comes if initiatives are scientifically informed and if they have legs as a consequence of this. ECWO’s commitment to creating a gender equity for the benefit of our societies and for social justice reasons means that we do not want to adopt faddish approaches to what we do. Rather, we want to create sustaining platforms and communities that will achieve the goal, however depressingly long that takes. I say depressing because none of us should feel otherwise given the projections made for achieving equity by organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Commission.

In 2020, I expect ECWO to begin realising the research investments it is making into:

  • Developing instruments that our community can use to identify their key strengths and challenges and what actions they might consider taking, individually and collectively, to capitalise on their strengths and mitigate the challenges to career progression.
  • Gaining greater insight into the efficacy of our education portfolio in supporting women progress in their careers and in helping companies achieve the type of gender inclusive working environment they wish to create.
  • Turning our attention to gaining greater insight into how men can be more active in the needed transformation …  how do we move our male colleagues from denial, through recognition but passive behaviour, to active engagement?

Where do men fit into this strategy?

Ultimately, absolutely centrally! As long as men control capital they have the duty to consider how such capital is distributed. They can attempt to hide behind some form of trickledown economics—all we have to do is generate wealth and then all will fix itself—or they can step up to the plate, to use a baseball term. Men in positions of power need to move beyond lip service and take action. CEOs can debate endlessly about whether governments should or shouldn’t introduce quotas or they can just get out of their ‘chairs’ and identify a few more women to put on the executive board. And, before we run to the ‘but we need the best experienced person for the job’ let us never forget that boards regularly talk about the need to bring on the next generation of leadership to develop so they can take over. Maybe the next generation of developable people can be more gender-equally selected and less of ‘the son of my mate who plays golf with us’. Perhaps that was a little mean, but there is more than a sliver of truth to the sentiment!

What are the other ways—or strategies—of involving men as advocates of empowering women, and the advancement of women into positions of leadership?

It has been found that there are a number of reasons why men are not engaged. Understanding these may be key to changing how that the extent to which they become engaged. The identified hurdles are:

  • Gender inequality is dismissed as invalid. Advantage is invisible to the advantaged.
  • Gender inequality is perceived as a women’s only issue rather than an issue that has implications for all genders.
  • Gender inequality is out of concerns that it will limit own opportunities.
  • Men feel that they are being blamed for gender inequality.
  • Gender equality is perceived as an abstract business issue rather than one with real consequences for the lived experiences of women.
  • Finally, men don’t know how they can help.

How to help immediately:

  • First, just listen!
  • Respect the space.
  • Remember, it’s not about you.
  • Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • Engage in supportive partnerships with women.
  • Remember the two parts to ally-ship.

Among other positions, you are also Professor Extraordinaire at Stellenbosch Business School, Dean of Executive Education at RSM and Professor of Finance and Management at Bentley in the USA. What insight does this international view give you, in terms of the empowerment of women at a more global scale? And the role of men in this?

Although I have been fortunate enough to travel a lot, the overwhelming lesson of my travels has been to give me a healthy sense of how little I know and how similar we are. Let me start with the similarities. In my experience we all love our families and want the best for them, we all are nervous, if not afraid, of what is unknown and demonised for us by our societies, our life experiences, or even our faiths, and we all want to be happy and secure in our communities. In other words, if it wasn’t for the biases that we have developed over our lifetime of experiences, we would find it very easy to hold hands with kindred spirits. What does this have to do with the empowerment of women, or minorities, on a global scale? I would say a lot. For me, it illustrates that the behaviours we display as members of a ‘dominant coalition’ toward minorities, or those outside of the ‘group’, are motivated by similar distortions.  This means that the solutions, assuming they address the key underlying forces and are motivated by the same search for equality and justice, are relatively universal. They are sociological in nature. The real challenge of creating inclusive societies or communities is recognising bias, appreciating talent, and understanding that talent should not be measured as ‘stock’ (how much you have of something) but by ‘flow’ (your capacity to grow and develop from the personal and socially endowed resources that you have).

If there is one way that men can impact the career progression of women in organisations right now, what would that be?

Engage, engage, and then engage some more! And, there are several steps to this engagement.

  1. Take the time to become familiar with the growing body of evidence suggesting that, social justice aside, we are sacrificing economic development and equitable wealth distribution by not engaging women, and other minorities more fully in the workplace. The lesson: Diversity is not costly because it is difficult, it is valuable because of the richness that comes from precisely that the challenges it brings.
  2. Become aware of your own biases and recognise that bias is pervasive and unavoidable. Our life experiences bias us. The lesson: That you are biased is not the problem. How you behave as a consequence of that bias may very well be the problem.
  3. Finally, the dominant coalition need to internalise that loss of advantage is not the same as being disadvantaged. The lesson: Yes, when society is more equitable there will be more talent at the table. However, we can either see this as more divisions of the existing cake or the creation of a much larger cake to share. Think like Newton … If you want to climb mountains stand on the shoulders of giants. In the long-run, I progress further, and ultimately faster, when I work with the best talent there is available.

More information

The Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) is committed to women’s continued advancement into leadership positions across multiple sectors – from multinationals and start-ups to not-for-profit organisations. ECWO supports gender-balanced leadership through its management education, research and events about gender equality, and by coaching female business leaders. Its strong network leads to women empowerment and gender equality to the benefit of business and society.

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