Women take charge

A power shift in the boardroom

Business

The coming year will be the most remarkable for women in corporations since 1934, when Lettie Pate Whitehead joined the board of Coca-Cola—becoming one of the first women to be made a director of a major American company. Since then women have made progress onto corporate boards, but their advance through the executive ranks has been glacial. More than a hundred years after a young Lettie started managing the family’s 80 bottling plants in 1906, the numbers of women doing top management jobs are still very low.

In 2017 expect to see companies take action to make sure more females occupy powerful positions. In the past couple of decades they have messed around with all sorts of programmes designed to encourage women to rise. There have been flexible working plans, mentoring schemes, assertiveness courses, as well as diversity initiatives and cajoling of all varieties. But to little avail. In many industries—particularly in the financial sector—fewer than one in five managers are female, a ratio that is not much better than it was 20 years ago.

From now on the mood will harden. The tool of choice will increasingly be setting targets and quotas for women in management. What has been slow to happen by encouragement will start to occur by edict. Employers will publish demanding targets and declare in public how they are performing against them. They will leapfrog each other in the contest to be the company with the most stretching goals for women in the next three, five or ten years.

They will be persuaded to do this by two things—aside from despair at progress by other means. The first is the success of quotas for jobs on the board, which are now in operation in many European countries. Less directly, the sight of women running several of the strongest economies on the planet can’t help but make the corporate world look unfashionably male by comparison.

The weight of public opinion will increasingly punish anyone deemed not to be with the progamme. In 2016 Kevin Roberts had to quit as chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi after telling a journalist that there was no longer a problem of sexism for women working in advertising. He demonstrated how such remarks are career-ending and capable of destroying in seconds a personal brand built up over decades. Men will take note—and not only train themselves not to say such things, but not to think them either.

Instead everyone will claim to believe in the imperative of having more women in charge, whether they do or not. In 2017 the most fashionable thing for a man to do will be to refuse to sit on any panel unless there is at least one female on it. To be seen holding forth in all-male company will become an image no-no.

To meet the targets companies will have to drag women through the ranks, rather than enticing them along with a series of limp carrots. This will mean women who do not put themselves forward for promotion, either from lack of confidence or from lack of desire for a bigger job, will be strong-armed into doing so.

With such women in charge, the prevailing management style in big companies will start to shift. For the past two decades a swing away from aggressive alpha management techniques has been widely predicted but has not happened. The addition of a few senior women has not changed things at all, as the ones who have succeeded are the ones who flourish in adversarial conditions.

The new head girls

The next generation of female executives—who have been pulled upwards—may start to manage differently. A more consensual, emotionally intelligent way of leading could start to be a thing at last. In this less flamboyant world, grandstanding and showing off may be rather less fashionable than before. The heroic CEO will be forced to step aside.

The new mood will do wonders for ageism. To get women in sufficient numbers into top management jobs will mean bringing back into the workforce mothers who have dropped out, or promoting those who have dropped into the slow lane to bring up children. This generation of women, in their 50s and beyond, who no longer have to dash home to grill fish fingers will find themselves competing equally with men for the first time since they were at ­college.

No change is without cost. A band of mediocre men will lose out. They won’t be happy about it, but they won’t be able to protest—except possibly in the men’s lavatories. Yet even this refuge may soon be taken away from them. As part of a parallel trend not to offend transgender members of staff, the unisex (or gender-neutral) toilet is on the way. Already introduced in some universities, these will start to spread to corporations in 2017. And with their arrival the last thing that physically segregates the sexes at work will go. It will be good for equality, but again there will be a cost. Expect gossip to take a hit.

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