Sisters at work?

Do women help or hinder each other on their way to the top? Hero Brown reports that the relationships between women have become a crucial new factor in professional life
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When producer Lizzie Gower set up Academy Commercials 13 year ago she was the epitome of the Eighties career woman: tough, talented and out to prove a point in a male-dominated industry. Now with two production companies and a client base including Nike, Levi's and VW, things are very different for Gower - not least because these days she finds herself conducting much of her business with women. "The majority of producers in advertising agencies are female," she says, "so while I used to be aggressive in the way I ran my business and treated people, I deliberately go against those tactics now. You don't get your best work from people, especially women, if you're screaming and shouting at them, because the natural reaction is to recoil. If I see any of my producers working like that I'll try and change their approach to a softer way where they listen to other people..."

Gower hints that her business style has mellowed with the rising number of women in the workforce, as well as her own success ("I don't find it necessary to lord it now because there's a quiet respect," she says). But whether more women in the workplace can really make a difference to business attitudes generally is a highly contentious question. The idea that harmony, emotional sensitivity and productivity are automatically increased if greater numbers of women reach senior positions is simplistic at best. Even so, Gower's experience highlights the way in which many women are having to consider a new set of professional codes with each other in mind.

The importance of relationships between female peers is a new phenomenon in professional life. Yet, for some, the old ways are hard to shake. Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at UMIST, attributes what he calls the "queen bee" personality to traditional working environments. "Where there are only a few women, they will remain controlled by the predominant masculine culture," he says. "They love the fact that they're one of only a few women out there and they behave exactly like the men. However, the more women get together, the more they will feel secure to use their own management style rather than the one they're expected to use."

Yet the confidence to implement a "female" management style isn't purely a question of numbers. This is evident in areas such as primary-school teaching, nursing and women's magazines, where the staffing is strongly female, yet ultimate control often remains in male hands. In these "traditional" working cultures, the "queen bee" status is alive and kicking.

Perhaps, then, to have any impact on the overall office dynamic, the "female" style has to be initiated from the very top of an organisation. Certainly, for companies like Kids Connections, a specialist children's marketing agency in London, a confident female style has undeniably emerged due to its female ownership. Thirty-one-year-old director Karen Gillon openly admits that with so many women working together, "It can be quite emotional, and in some ways it makes it more difficult because we'll look at a situation and take into consideration how a certain person is feeling as well as the good of the company; but because of it, everyone works together brilliantly." Similarly, Lizzie Gower claims to "know more about the people I work with than a man might - that they've just split up with their boyfriend, that they've had a miscarriage, that they desperately want a baby. When you've had that personal connection and built some trust, it makes working together much smoother."

However, this approach still doesn't cut it in boys-club professions like law and finance. A senior female litigator at a leading London solicitors describes the relationship between women in the law as "probably hovering somewhere between being 'sisters' and going all out for each other's throats!" and admits to unacceptable levels of aggression among some female litigators. "The interesting thing, though," she says, "is that when a male litigator gets angry or aggressive with you, it's quite easy to deal with, it's almost fun and you don't take it personally at all. But when a female litigator does it, I react quite badly to it."

In masculine environments, this is exactly the murky space in which women are having to rework their relationships, a place where "sisterhood" is as defunct as the "office bitch", but where traditional social understandings collide with attempts to conduct business in a more "masculine" style. Sarah Ross, an attractive, approachable 33-year-old investment analyst with Citibank, recalls a recent business lunch with a female broker which shocked her in its brusqueness. The broker, who like Ross was Oxford- educated, was the most aggressive woman she had ever met. "I was really surprised by her," admits Ross. "She didn't smile

once and it started off being the worst kind of lunch I'd ever had. Clearly, this woman usually did her business with men and her approach obviously worked with them. But what was interesting was that it just couldn't work with women. I thought, God you've worked hard on creating this! From the minute she started talking to me, I said to myself, 'I refuse for the conversation to be like this.' I just felt that it wasn't the conversation I wanted to have with her. And, gradually, the layers of artifice were eroded and eroded. By pudding we were talking about where she was going on holiday with her boyfriend."

For Ross, this was a strength not a weakness. "I would actually talk to this woman now, not because she's done a great job of selling her company, but because I've engaged with her on a more human level," she says. "And I'm not saying it's a particularly 'female' level, only that women have less experience in developing that business persona that men have. Maybe that's how the culture in the City can change."

So is the secret of fruitful female relations in the workplace simply a question of not being ashamed of empathetic skills? For Ross, it hinges on security, feeling confident enough as a woman to drop the pin-stripe and the attitude. "While it might well be true that to be successful women in the Eighties you had to out-aggress the aggressors, now those rules have changed," she says. "I feel very profoundly that I'm not going to turn into that kind of a person."

It is now almost regarded as a given that we should look to women for a more productive, flexible, humane way of working. Yet, in large corporations, where the scope for interaction and general touchy-feeliness may be limited, the value of such a "personal" business style is moot. One thing is certain, however - with more women doing business with each other, traditional female codes of conduct will continue to shift.

According to Dr Melanie Katzman, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of London and a specialist in gender issues at the office, it is time to look past sex and concentrate on the issue of competence. "You still have certain ingrained notions of what is proper female behaviour, and when you deviate from that there is a punishment. For example, women are often told that they are being too emotional. And often when a woman gets angry in a meeting she's a bitch," she says.

"Empathetic skills are seen as the territory of women, but we now know that it's an important ability to coach. Conversely, women need to be much more challenging of each other. Women tend to look much more than men for similarities - how are we alike? - in order to maintain a connection or warmth of spirit. But in aggressive environments, like the trading floor, I can tell you the successful women roll with the punches. The women who say they are going to change this environment are the ones who end up being brutalised and sorely frustrated."