Non-confrontational, helpful and flexible, no wonder women are the modern employer's first choice

Female skills are proving increasingly successful in the workplace, reports Christian Wolmar (below). Men, meanwhile, are finding life significantl y tougher, explains Barrie Clement (right)
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Rex Harrison's song in My Fair Lady might be turned round to ask "why can't men be more like women?" Employers are increasingly turning to women to fill vacancies with the result that 48 per cent of the workforce is female and women may soon make up the majority of workers.

The traditional virtues of women, such as the ability to co-operate and work in a non-confrontational way, have been suggested as the reasons why women appear to be becoming more employable than men. An Equal Opportunities Commission report yesterday revealed that more men than women are complaining about bias in job applications. Certainly, women's traditional ways of working appear to be particularly valuable in today's largestcompanies whose interests stretch across the globe and which are dependent on the widespread use of information technology for their success. Liz Bargh, the director of Opportunity 2000, says that women are presenting themselves to employers with the kind of attributes which employers are seeking: "Women have traditionally been more co-operative, while men have been seen as more aggressive."

In the large global concerns which are increasingly dominating the economies of the developed countries, Ms Bargh argues that the old hierarchical structures are no longer as useful because information flows so quickly that it is impossible for any one person to keep up to date with all aspects of a company's work. Therefore, decision-making has to devolve downwards to a wider group of managers who are all equal, a role women may find easier to take on than men. Ms Bargh does not believe that there is a "cluster of skills which are predominantly female, and a cluster which are male". She feels most of the virtues seen as feminine are learnt, from the cradle to university and beyond, rather than inherited.

However, before men charge off to training courses on how to become more sharing and caring, they should ponder the fact that the hierarchies of most organisations are still dominated by men who have got there by using their traditional strongpoints of being competitive and aggressive.

Sue Ledwith, joint editor of Women in Organisations - Challenging Gender Politics, says that while in the past decade the proportion of women in the workforce has risen by 4 per cent to 48 per cent, women still make up only 7 per cent of top managers, "and even that's an optimistic estimate".

Ms Ledwith reckons that employers are taking on women in greater numbers for the traditional reasons that they are cheaper and more flexible: "Jobs that go to women are lower status with low levels of unionisation." Even in the professions which women are increasingly entering, such as law and medicine, they tend to get the jobs which are less well paid and take twice as long as men to get promoted into management positions.

While traditional women's skills may be ensuring women at least get a job, the old male skills of aggression are needed to get to the top. "Women's traditional approach may be good at getting them into middle management but to reach the top they may have to change into an aggressive style, and they may feel it is not worth doing so," Ms Ledwith said.

There is, too, a contradiction across the generations. While employers may look to young women to have the same skills as their mothers, they may not do so. Older women became good at juggling the demands of work and home out of necessity. Now, with more emphasis on men sharing housework and childcare, and with better provision of nursery care, younger women may no longer need those skills which endowed their mothers with their ability to cope with many tasks at once. There is, nevertheless, some scope for men to become more like women. "Men have to adapt to less traditional patterns of employment. It may be easier for younger men to do so," Ms Ledwith says. They should no longer expect permanent, full-time jobs. They have to be prepared to accept contract work and possibly part time posts.

But here again, says Sue Newell, a business lecturer at Warwick University, the gender gap remains in favour of men: "While women get contract jobs at the bottom of the scale, with poorly paid short term jobs, contracts obtained by men tend to be for good pay and fora reasonable length."