In the public sector, there seems to be a proliferation of meetings, networks, training courses and articles aiming to persuade women to apply for management positions.
Suddenly, it’s as though organisations have realised the need for diversity in upper-level management. They’re urging women not to be afraid, to take more risks, to make their work more visible, to network for support, to be more competitive, and so on.
Generally, they’re asking women to emulate the behaviours men have always used to reach the top. Yet despite their efforts, there is scant interest from women. Very few women go for top positions, and even fewer get them. This merits deeper reflection than the throwaway explanations we’ve been given for decades.
In this article, I want to discuss the fact that top-down hierarchy is a management style tailored to men, and tethered to the past. It is wrong to keep nudging women to inhabit roles they simply don’t want to play. Something has to give, and it clearly won’t be us.
Hierarchy vs. heterarchy
Anthropologists claim that in order to understand current societal behaviours, we should look to those of our ancestors. Questions they ask typically include what women in hunter-gatherer societies did while their male counterparts embarked on collective hunting expeditions. Some evidence suggests they organised their work in a type of flat hierarchy, or even heterarchy, based on flexible units.
Some hunter-gatherer women would care for the offspring, while others looked after the old and sick. Some foraged for food while others cooked. These women were very efficient and kept things going, even in the absence of men. More importantly, they didn’t need a vertical hierarchy to do any of it. Everyone knew what needed to be done for the collective to thrive, and so got on and did what was needed. Everybody had a role, and that role accommodated their skills.
In the agrarian age, and even in the industrial age, social hierarchies developed the pyramidal structure we’ve inherited. In this organisational structure, the winner takes all. He who reaches the top by acquiring the most resources determines the fate of those below, while those below have the job of sustaining the winner.
Men initially naturally organised themselves according to physical strength. Later on, they started to use wealth. Today, men also use their professional status. The pyramidal hierarchy has always functioned as a means by which one man can dominate another, or in moments of collective self-interest, as justification for one tribe to mobilise against a perceived threat.
Women have consistently attended to whichever gap this structure needed filling, often silently and thanklessly, and without the need to dominate.
A binary vision of leadership
This all sounds very abstract, yet it accurately describes how management works today. In rare cases where women do occupy top positions, they face overzealous scrutiny, unjustified animosity, and considerable loneliness. This either happens because there are so few similarly-stationed female peers, or because their jobs pushed them to relinquish family commitments.
Instead of trying to understand why women still aren’t succeeding in structures created by men, I suggest we envisage new management structures based on a less binary notion of competent leadership.
The reasons given as to why women fall short of upper-level management positions in the public sector and beyond are wearing thin. They typically include lack of confidence, adversity to risk, indecisiveness, and excessive humbleness. All do little more than to highlight the fact that women are not in fact men.
Confidence is defined as the confidence to dominate others. But when no such drive to dominate exists, perhaps we need to reconsider what confidence means. For women, being ‘risk averse’ means wanting to put safety first. ‘Indecisiveness’ may mean reflection, rather than inhibition. ‘Humbleness’, often seen as a sign of low self-worth, might actually be the result of wanting to include others in one’s self image.
There are only a limited number of senior roles out there that value these qualities. Upper-level positions still imply the need for a strongman, even when the position is occupied by a woman.
A model fit for this century
The problems we face today suggest we need to step away from the strongman model of leadership. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the need for more empathetic policies that recognise that people have lost their loved ones or their jobs. Meanwhile, climate change cannot be mitigated without compromise and collaboration. Mass-migration due to conflict and poverty cannot be faced without inclusiveness and compassion.
Hierarchical structures have for too long served to elevate and sustain the aggressor, the risk-taker, the braggart, and the bully. What we need more than ever are structures that promote a new model of leadership based on the “empathetic woman in the middle”.
It is not women who need to adapt to succeed in existing hierarchies, but rather those structures that need to evolve. Perhaps what this calls for really is a heterarchical future of management, one that finally champions the work that women, together and as individuals, have been doing silently for millennia.