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The Business World: Hi-tech can level the playing field for women

the business world
IN AUGUST this year, there were 1,178 directors of FTSE-100 companies. Of these, 61 were women, but they were mostly non-executives. Only eight held executive positions.

Yet, in theory, business ought to be becoming progressively more gender- neutral. Nearly every business now at least pays lip-service to the idea that its main asset is the human capital of its staff. Since half the people leaving university are women, to fail to draw on this pool of talent would seem short-sighted.

The fact that large organisations are shedding their top-down, command- and-control characteristics and becoming more horizontally-structured organisations should also work in favour of women. The old authoritarian power games of male executives don't work very well, being replaced by more inclusive, co-operative styles of management.

As for the new "dot.com" companies - well, for them gender, like race and age, is irrelevant. "On the Internet," said the dog to a computer in the New Yorker cartoon, "nobody knows you're a dog".

But a study of women in top management jobs, The Changing Culture of Leadership: Women Leaders' Voices (published by The Change Partnership, 170 Piccadilly, W1V 9DD) suggests the gap is still wide.

The authors interviewed 52 unnamed women in top jobs in public and private sectors. Their job descriptions are given: for example "senior scientist, global oil and gas company", and the anonymity allows forthright comments on the awfulness of some managements.

The questions include how they themselves lead, the ways in which they found their gender helpful and the reverse, and the impact of the organisational culture of the organisations in which they worked.

Most of the comments are pure common sense. For example it would be impossible to know whether this statement about leadership style was made by a man or a women: "It (the culture) is going to be very practical, open, flatter, more strategic at senior levels, customer-focused and still maintaining high standards." All good managers say something like that.

If you look at the barriers women find in business, they are not so different to those many men find. Several interviewees complain about table-thumpers, an excess of office politics or a macho style of management. Others complain about an excess of bureaucracy, an unwillingness to take risks, and a mixture of complacency turning to fear as the share price drops.

But there must be plenty of men who have experienced managers who have "the most appalling attitude to people". I have seen top managers, male and female, behave in an appallingly bullying manner towards more junior staff. They usually get themselves sacked in the end, but they do a awful lot of damage on the way. So what is to be done? The authors focus on the need to get more women into top management, acknowledging that it is climbing but noting that it is still very low. They look at practical ways in which the numbers of women in such positions can be boosted, and at ways of training, developing and supporting women in middle management to prepare them for the top jobs.

Companies that follow these guidelines will almost certainly improve their management. Had companies such as Marks & Spencer started 10 years ago to develop their female middle management (which is very good), they might not be in such a mess now.

But should women managers aspire to leading a Footsie 100 company, or be a permanent secretary in the Civil Service? It is wrong in moral terms and stupid in economic terms to exclude half of the available talent pool, but is that where power will lie in the future?

Instead, surely, power is shifting to small organisations, particularly entrepreneurial ones, and to talented individuals. Here there is a level playing field: no-one cares about the gender of Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of Lastminute.com, or of JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. And here there seems to me to be both a challenge and an opportunity.

The challenge is that while anyone can start a dot.com company, it is mostly men that do. A colleague reckons men sometimes outnumber women by nearly 10 to one at the First Tuesday parties, where would-be entrepreneurs seek capital from venture capitalists and business angels. While entrepreneurship may exist as abundantly in men as in women, men seem to be more geeky and the new communications technologies are the real territory of the geek.

You may or may not accept that gender stereotyping, but the fact remains that most of the businesses started on both sides of the Atlantic seem to be started by men. So the challenge to would-be women entrepreneurs will be to turn any lack of interest in the technology side of these new businesses into an advantage.

The opportunity comes in the way the new technologies make it easier for talented individuals to market those skills more widely. JK Rowling is, in a way, a bad example, for there have been a string of successful female novelists long before the new technologies came along.

But it is not difficult to think of other skills which can be distributed over the Net without the gender of the person becoming an issue. Anyone who can fix computer problems over the phone or the screen will find the world beating a path to their door.

Besides, virtually all the Net jobs are in very small companies, or by the self-employed. Self-employed women may meet barriers in marketing their skills, but at least they are not going to have an overbearing male boss.

The old battle - who controls the big companies and the big government departments - still matters. But it will become less and less important as the power shifts to the new economy. What really matters will be who will prosper there.