Opinion: So does gender matter? You bet it does

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

One of the distinctive things about Macmillan is its people. In my career in charities they are consistently the best I have worked with, including the executive team.

Turnover and remodelling of the team means I have appointed half of it - two as internal promotions and one a former trustee who entered an open contest. We've progressed to gender balance, but the team still doesn't reflect the make-up of our paid and volunteer workforce, of which 80 per cent are women.

Courageously, I'm heading into the maelstrom of gender generalisations.

When Acevo did its landmark work on gender among charity chief executives, it was no surprise it found our glass ceiling more porous. But in the sector's workforce, men mostly decide and women mostly do.

In the course of my career I've worked with all-female and all-male executive teams. Does it make a difference working with men or women? You bet. Men typically treat organisations like machines: outputs should be in direct relation to inputs and if they aren't you have a problem. "Think technical, think male," as Ruth Padel says in her lucent book 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem. Male discourse about organisations reflects this - looking for hard measures, indicators, ratios, impact and returns. Look at the business and finance pages of the daily press.

The gender ratio makes a difference to how a team behaves, too. Typically, women co-operate to find pathways through complexity; men compete to find the shortest route. The men in an executive group talk to each other differently, joshing and bantering until a bloke-joke reaches a climax, then starting on a new one. Men tell each other things rather than asking questions; they score points rather than affirming each other. Women in a minority in a male team often have to ventriloquise male discourse.

Women are not fluffy managers - the two finest managers I've worked with are both women. So does gender matter? It matters if there's a gulf between how the main workforce thinks and acts and what the top team does; it matters if talent goes needlessly to waste in charities. In the 1970s, I learned that men can't be feminists, but I also learned that men can understand how women perform, organise their working lives and demonstrate their successes. This isn't a matter of political correctness, but of leadership - of recognising what's in the interests of the charity and acting on it.

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