Cathy Pharoah: Gender's not the main issue - we just need leaders who provide leadership

We must not let ourselves get sidetracked from vital questions about leadership, says our columnist

Cathy Pharoah
Cathy Pharoah

Watch out, sisters, I think I smell a rat here. When our leaders, from the Prime Minister down to Sir Stephen Bubb suddenly start agitating for women's rights, my alarm bells start ringing.

Rowena Lewis, a former fellow at the Clore Social Leadership Programme, recently asked how it is that a sector dedicated to social justice has done so little to promote women to positions of leadership and ensure equal pay.

A very good question, but it is even more important to ask why women's power is suddenly in the spotlight, whether in FTSE boardrooms or the third sector. Have consciences been awakened suddenly, or is something more suspicious at work?

"There is clear evidence that putting an end to Britain's male-dominated business culture would improve performance," Bubb claimed in his blog last month. Unfortunately, he doesn't cite his sources and there is actually good evidence to suggest that precisely the opposite is true: that there is no relationship between women's presence on boards and objective measures of performance.

Moreover, the history of areas such as teaching and general practice suggests that the removal of entry barriers for women comes precisely at the point where a particular field is beginning to lose relative status within its professional field - for example, general practice lost out to acute medicine and surgery, and teaching was unable to maintain competitive pay levels.

Senior management roles have never been so unrewarding. The pressures to implement radical change and improve performance while delivering budget cuts and redundancies are growing. In a recent article on the qualities of "a great public sector leader", one chief executive noted that the austerity measures are putting heavier pressure on leadership skills than ever before.

But I think the biggest giveaway lies in the comment of another chief executive, who said: "Any crisis puts pressure on leaders, but good leaders are there to do the difficult things. Any idiot can do it when it's easy."

Women need to beware of replacing the idiots, of being promoted precisely because existing leadership positions are difficult and demanding, and of being lured into taking responsibility for crises not of their making. Far from getting opportunities to be creative or inspirational, they risk becoming scapegoats for failure or senior level Cinderellas, mopping up messes.

Cautionary examples of women who accepted poisoned chalices and are paying a high price for it are A4e's Emma Harrison, who recently quit as the Prime Minister's 'back to work' tsar, and Julia Gillard, the increasingly embattled Australian Prime Minister, pulled in conflicting directions. Women need to beware the siren voices: let's not allow gender issues to sidetrack proper discussion of how the sector can offer leadership in the harsh challenges of the current environment, whether by men or women.

Cathy Pharoah, professor of charity funding at Cass Business School

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