The Independent MBA: Sex is what matters, not your nationality

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The Independent Online

The Austrians are power-crazed, the Swedes are touchy-feely and in the UK we just love to do as we please. According to some of the best-respected analysts in European business schools, these crude stereotypes contain a fair bit of truth.

It is widely assumed that the different nationalities have developed their own, unique business cultures. But the heads of European MBA courses will hear a very different story when they gather in Barcelona later in the summer. Two Norwegian professors are disputing the orthodox view with evidence that globalised trade is eating away at national identities, producing in their stead a homogenised European workforce. French bureaucratic hierarchies, Italian machismo and doughty British individualism are much harder to find than they once were – in the office at least.

In fact the key workplace differences are no longer found at national borders, but across the gender divide, according to Professors Paul Gooderham and Odd Nordhaug from the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration. In the world of academic business studies, this is a controversial view. It has already led to what passes for a row in the pages of the European Business Forum magazine, the house journal for business-theory experts.

The theory being criticised is most closely identified with a leading Dutch academic called Geert Hofstede – who has already dismissed the two Norwegians as "amateurish". He first developed his argument more than 20 years ago, after studying IBM's employees across Europe and finding that national boundaries made a big difference to the way they worked. He found, for example, that the French were much impressed by power structures and hierarchies as, to a lesser extent, were the British. Spain, Germany, Austria and Italy all emerged as macho, favouring money, ambition and performance.

In contrast, Norway, Sweden and Denmark had a more "feminine" approach, valuing healthy relationships instead. France, Italy and Spain were opposed to risk-taking, preferring "uncertainty avoidance". And when it came to individualism, British businessmen and women were almost off the scale, ignoring wider social needs in favour of work, self and immediate family.

Professors Gooderham and Nordhaug think Europe is more boring than in Hofstede's world, arguing that the different nationalities have become much of a muchness. They reached their conclusions after questioning 1,335 European business students on their attitudes. The professors believe that Hofstede is plain wrong on one or two points of method. But more interesting is their separate conclusion that European integration and global trade are wearing down any national differences that may have existed in the past.

Nordhaug and Gooderham concluded that Britain is not particularly individualistic at all, for example. In fact, British business attitudes are only averagely self-centred. The Nordic countries, in contrast, turn out to be a good deal more driven and ambitious than traditional stereotypes would allow. France is no longer the most hierarchical country in Europe: Germany, Austria and Spain all appear to be more status-conscious.

Their most striking finding is that the different nations score more or less equally across the range of different attitudes. This is important partly because it may allow multi-national firms to introduce single management strategies to fit a range of countries, a practice which is currently thought to be extremely problematic .

What really does divide the workplaces, say the Norwegians, is the male-female balance. Across the European workforce, men are found to value money, assertiveness, ambition and competition while women are more motivated by quality of life, relationships and the quality of the service they are providing. According to Gooderham and Nordhaug, "our findings suggest that Italian women have more in common with their Swedish counterparts than with their fellow national males".

Not every difference has been eroded, however. Few of today's business students are bothered about "the ability to command others" – except, that is, in Germany and Austria. According to this research at least, Teutonic females are the bossiest creatures on the European business scene.

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