Women have come a long way, but there’s a lot farther to go

Nobel Prizes for three African women is certainly a sign of progress, but here in Israel two-thirds of all companies have no women managers at all.

By SUSAN FISHER
October 16, 2011 23:26
2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners

2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The announcement on October 7 that three African women have been awarded the Nobel Prize instantly made news. Much has been made of the fact that they are African, pro-democracy and religious, or any combination of these. But every article, website and report highlighted the fact that they were women.

Women and Work. Women and Leadership. Women and Politics. I have been listening to this debate my whole life. Are we up to it? Or as an early male chauvinist pig (remember those?) once said to me, “If you can’t stand the heat get back in the kitchen.”

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When I was eight I wanted to be an airline stewardess. I was told it would be too hard for me because “you will need languages.”

This was in the era when TV women on programs like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie had to have supernatural powers to have any power at all.

I do not think the scriptwriters of the hit 1960’s series Madmen were exaggerating when Joan – the glam office manager – showed a new typewriter to Peggy – the clever secretary – and said, “Don’t be overwhelmed by the technology. It looks complicated but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.”

I well remember people talking like that.

It’s not that the world has never had its share of strong women. It has. No one could call Indira, Golda or Margaret shrinking violets. Today, Hilary can show some attitude while Angela holds Europe in the palm of her hand.

But what has really changed for the real women in Israel and abroad? One sure sign of progress is the numerous name changes over the years.

What began as women’s emancipation over a hundred years ago changed into women’s liberation, then became feminism.

In the workplace and public life it has now morphed into gender equality and – for the really progressive – diversity and inclusion.

Does this mean that, in the words of the iconic Virginia Slims advert, “You’ve come a long way, Baby”? The statistics, as always, are still fairly dismal.

Last month, The Economist reported that the World Bank “Gender Equality and Development: World Development Report 2012” points out that globally, women earn 10-30 percent less than men. They are also concentrated in “women’s” jobs.

Annoyingly, economic growth does not seem to narrow the gap.

Here in Israel, women may serve as bank chiefs and even opposition leaders, but this is misleading. A 2009 survey by The Manufacturers’ Association reports that 23% of all managers in Israel are women, but that there are no women managers at all in around 66% of companies. Less than 10% get to the highest levels of management.

Nobody in the West disputes any more that women have got what it takes to lead, manage or make a difference. The barriers of sexism and the lack of role models are no longer the main barriers to women.

Rather it is the taking care of children that women want or need to make time for that is the big obstacle. This means that many women are on a bumpy work-life balance seesaw their whole lives.

As co-chairwoman of the organization Digital Eve Israel, the largest women’s professional networking group in the country, I have a ringside seat to watch the balancing act of working women in the country at different stages of their very busy lives.

That view has cemented my belief that working mothers can be leaders. My colleagues on our Steering Board are among the most able and focused women I have ever worked with. All are successful professionals, and all have a bunch of kids at home.

Of our nearly 2800 members, 70% are Israeli-born and 30% grew up abroad, including English speakers. Interestingly – and flatteringly for both sides – about 15% of our members are men. Everything related to work comes up on our online list: from the best social media practice to great programming jobs to requests for business partners overseas. But often the longest, strongly argued discussion threads relate to the old/new questions: Can women have it all? Are men willing to promote and share in our success?

We are battling the twin enemies of time and guilt, although we’re getting better at it. The economic necessity that makes two salaries required for many households in Israel is one reason why we may not be lagging too far behind. But religion and its traditional roles for men and women are deeply rooted in Israel. Particularly in the religious sector, that there is still some ambivalence about women and leadership.

If that is still the case here, how much more so must it be in Africa. This, of course, is what makes the achievements of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman so noteworthy.

Can we imagine any of those three activist women from Africa saying to herself as little girl, “One day I am going to win a Nobel Prize? Or a black child telling himself that one day he would be president of the United States? Old prejudices may die hard, but they do die.

So the search goes on for that elusive equilibrium; fulfilling, rewarding work & pay with a happy and healthy life. But there is good news. In the global race for great talent, organizations are asking themselves hard commercial questions about gender diversity and talent management. This is often corporate blah blah for “how do we attract and retain good women in our company?”

One senior vice president of human resources I coached at a technology giant faced this challenge: In Israel that year, of the total number of computer engineering graduates around 20% were women. The target set by her US management was that they recruit the full 20% in that year’s intake. Not bad for a bunch of people who used to get flummoxed by a new typewriter.

This shortage is even more pronounced in emerging markets – the BRIC countries and much of Asia and Africa. Companies need to develop the best-educated and best-prepared managers in those markets, which increasingly means women. But let’s retain perspective. A recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports that Asia is “missing” about 96 million women due to discriminatory health care, female infanticide and sex-selective abortion.

In the really progressive companies the business case is frequently made that performance is better and markets better served by diverse and inclusive companies. That means more women and family-friendly policies.

Last month saw the release of the movie I Don’t Know How She Does It, based on Allison Pearson’s best-seller about a young mother/finance executive trying to have it all. The movie stars Sara Jessica Parker, so we must have made it to the mainstream.

At the same time, legislation exists or is on its way to promote more women to the executive suite in Norway, Spain, France and Germany. That means reserving board seats for women.

And there has been another intriguing development. We are only now beginning to fully realize that when men and boys do not play a full part in the raising of children and the running of the home it is they who lose out. They are disenfranchised. The intriguing part is that they now seem to be realizing it too.

The writer is the director of First Class (www.first-class.co.il), a leadership, communication & global working consultancy & training company, and the co-chair of Digital Eve Israel.


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