What a woman's got to do

Pushy, ballsy, mumsy, frilly, frumpy: the attributes required by women to succeed in the workplace. That's what surveys say, so it must be true, mustn't it?
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The Independent Culture
It's a confusing time for women who want to get ahead at work. "Pushy Women Don't Make it to the Top" screams one headline. Evidently, to get promoted women need to be "cheerful, self-confident, motherly". This has me searching through the cupboard for my apron. But no sooner have I knotted the ties than I read something completely different. "If you really want to be successful, you have to adopt a masculine approach of being pushy and dominant. In short, you have to walk on dead bodies," says the next survey. Right. Apron off. Armour on. Then comes yet another survey on the subject, by the Industrial Society. "The writing is on the wall for the macho managers," comments one news report.

Well, all I can say is that it is nice to get out of that armour. At least I now know why I always carry around such a huge handbag. It's the only way to cope with having to change my identity so regularly. What a choice: pushy, ballsy, mumsy, frilly, frumpy! But, handbag aside, what really is going on here? Why are there so many surveys, with so many different results? Truly, do any of them really know what they are talking about?

It's a subject we cannot get enough of. The experts say that we have become obsessed with it for the simple reason that more women are at work than ever before, and more of them want careers, not just jobs. This is the Sexual Revolution at the Coffee Machine and, even though it's been going on for some time, we are still in chaos over what it all means.

For years we've been saying that everyone is equal, and that it was only a matter of time before this was reflected at work. But now we have had to admit that we were wrong.

"We have finally given ourselves permission to look at how men and women are different," says Liz Cook, a senior consultant for the Industrial Society. "We have had 20 years of equality legislation and affirmative action, and it hasn't really worked. What we've really got is that men and women are different and unequal."

This has thrown up a whole new set of questions. What are female personality traits? How do they fit into the male-dominated workplace? Should women change? Should the workplace change?

"Maybe," says Ms Cook, "by nature women aren't designed to be in the boardroom as it is today. That doesn't mean they won't be in tomorrow's, though."

But tomorrow isn't in this year's budget planning session, and firms insist that they want more women at the top today, especially now that such female-friendly skills as listening and mentoring are all the rage. But the reality is that only 1 per cent of executive directors on corporate boards are women. "The figures on this are pathetic," says Sue Vinnicombe, of Cranfield School of Management.

Clearly, the situation is grave. Everyone agrees that something must be done - and so far that something has been to conduct a survey (make that a dozen). Press reports present each report as saying something completely different from the one before. But what is behind the headlines? Surely there must be some wisdom in all this survey lunacy? I decided to deconstruct the most recent three surveys, and the results were instructive.

Take the Industrial Society survey that concluded that the days of the macho manager are numbered. It turns out that this survey did not talk to managers at all. Instead it concentrated on the views of what it calls "followers", but what you and I would call underlings.

Not surprisingly, these underlings liked in their leaders such qualities as honesty, trust and humility. It seems that these are seen as female attributes; ergo, the conclusion that macho is out, female is in. Sounds great. The only problem is that this is really just a report on what employees wish were true. It has nothing to do with reality.

That is probably just as well. At least, that is the only possible conclusion that can be drawn when looking at the results of another survey, conducted by Tuvia Melamed, a psychologist. It paints the real workplace as being awash with macho managers, who eat testosterone for breakfast and never talk when they can shout. Here the only successful woman is nothing short of a dominatrix. Dr Melamed is embarrassed about this. He realises that his results are politically incorrect.

"But the successful women did say they really had to be more male than the men," he said. "They were very, very tough and had to forget the caring, sensitive side of their personalities. Many compared themselves to Margaret Thatcher."

We don't want even to think about where that handbag will take us - and so on to the details of the survey. It was carried out over a period of four years at Anglia Business School. It examined personality profiles of 1,243 British managers (949 men, 294 women) using something called the 16PF form 5. They were compared with the results obtained from "normal" British adults.

The results show that female managers' scores were closer to those of their male counterparts than those in the comparison group. When you look closely at the numbers, though, you can see that although there is a pattern, it really does not seem to be of the kind of proportions that merit comparison with Margaret Thatcher. Dr Melamed points out that there were also follow- up interviews. He assures me that he is not mistaken. "I wish that it were different," he says.

Well it can be. That is what is so great about the world of surveys. Enter Peter York, style guru and management consultant. He is the man behind the survey that says that pushy women don't get to the top. His company, SRU Consultancy, conducted in-depth interviews with 16 women at the very top of their professions. It's a small survey but, as he points out, it's a small base group. But can it really be true? Do we need to don aprons and stop being pushy if we want to get to the top? What does it all mean? I wouldn't admit to being pushy (God forbid) but I did want to get straight to the point.

Me: Should I cease to be bossy, then?

Mr York: Well, how bossy are you?

Me: You aren't answering my question.

Mr York: It's quite a difficult one. What we were saying was very simple. This small group of women do not manifest the style that people would expect...

Me: Should I be mumsy and kind, then?

Mr York: We were not saying, be mumsy and kind. There are a variety of manoeuvres that women have used to get ahead that now look redundant and archaic. One was to be a pretend man. Another was to be the office vamp. That's very date-stamped.

Me: What about the survey by Dr Melamed that says that we have to be pretend men?

Mr York: I would have liked to have seen the data. I think the fundamental thing is that they are talking about a different set of human beings.

Me: Can you see why women like me are confused?

Mr York: I can. But I do think you should persevere.

What is really needed is a survey of the surveys. It is clear that these three are different mainly because of whom they interviewed, and what means they used. But they were not comparing apples and oranges as much as, perhaps, apples, pomegranates and pommes de terre.

It is possible that all three are essentially true: followers want leaders who are not macho, female managers act tougher in a male-dominated company, and women who have shattered the glass ceiling can no longer remember possessing even a shard's worth of pushiness.

Mr York suspects that many of the women at the very top are in denial, or have just forgotten about their early struggles. And he points out that they see the women ten years younger as being very different to themselves. "They see them as narrower, more obsessive and so concerned about career as to miss the substance of what they are doing. The younger women want a lot of it all. They want to be part of a wolf pair. They are fantastically successful, and they want their partner to be, too."

I panic at the thought of having to find a wolf costume as well as an apron and all that dominatrix gear. It's a relief to call Sheila Wild, of the Equal Opportunities Commission, who says that who gets ahead depends as much on the structure of the workplace as an y individual traits. "Oh, ignore the advice," she says. "Everyone has their own personality and temperament and you can only do what you can do. In some workplaces being mumsy works; in others it's more masculine. There are no hard-and-fast rules."

She says that more and more women are voting with their feet anyway, and setting up their own businesses. I'm sure there will be a survey on that soon.