Posts Tagged ‘woman’

Business women of the world, unite

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012


Last night, I found myself watching the PBS documentary entitled Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Hosted by the two journalists Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (his wife), and patterned after their book by the same name , it took me on a roller-coaster from utter despair (when a fourteen year old Sierra Leone rape victim gets expelled from her home for confronting her predator) to powerful hope (learning how innovative some of the militant women are who help young girls or women victims fight and survive).

Unlike Kristof and WuDunn, I am not in a position to write about women oppression of the physical kind (rape, mutilation, sexual slavery), but I do witness quieter cases of women’s moral oppression in global business every day.

I’m talking about you, anonymous Yemeni woman in my Dubai class of the London Business School last year. As often in the Arab world, I was instructed not to address you first. For three hours, you patiently listened to my challenging your male Middle-Eastern colleagues without engaging, eyes mostly down on your notes. In the last fifteen minutes, you found the courage to raise your hand and suggested a brilliant application for your bank of what I was trying to teach. I can still remember your dark eyes, glittering with the excitement of a new thought.  I would have liked to put you on stage and have you teach the next class with me. But I didn’t, because this is no place of a Yemeni woman.

I’m also thinking of you, bright young women I have known in academia or consulting over the years in the US or Europe, who never knew how good you were, and who settled for second best careers (or no career at all) because nobody told you you had the power to change the world. How I wish some senior woman in your department could have taken you by the hand and shown you the way! Images of workshops are dancing in my head, with ebullient Brazilian males listening to their head roar while women with richer experience would not dare speak, or post office women in France keeping silent on their experience of work while listening to their male superiors describing their life as if they were not there.

It’s not easy advocating for women in business when you’re a guy. I always feel a bit awkward, if not downright silly. When I timidly do, I immediately get haunted by images of male politicians discussing women’s health issues, or memories of top-level women’s sports teams coached by mediocre men. What do I know about a woman’s experience? And who am I to even try to help? And so I shut up, most of the time.

If I ever find my voice on this topic, here is what I’d like to say: business women of the world, unite. I see you everywhere, full of talent, able to do things that guys cannot do as well as you, and yet you contort yourself into the male-dominated, individualistic, process-driven model of the business world that has been oppressing you for years. Break those shackles. Let your instinct take over: focus on the human experience, starting with your own. Build communities of business women inside and outside your firm. Unleash the forces of co-creation by shamelessly slanting the resources of your firm toward women. The business world will be a better place for it. Even for the guys. (As Dr. Seuss sort of said, the guys who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind).

Women are alone in the business world. Their interactions remain mostly directed at men they try to please, because this is still often where the power lies. There are of course women’s business associations and support groups, but none of them can play the role of a company-centric community of women helping each other. Governments try to provide incentives to remove the glass ceiling, but they can’t do as good a job as your establishing yourselves into a community of powerful self-advocates.

Sometimes it’s OK to be biased. Women should also build communities outside their firm. They should buy from other women and sell to other women. Better be on the field than talk from the sideline. Use the resources of your firm for advantage. Support other women. Hire women. Promote women. Play to win. Be tough.


Why does the American press hate Angela?

Saturday, December 24th, 2011


Enough already! In their recent editions, both Newsweek and Bloomberg Businessweek are vilifying Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, for failing to solve the Euro crisis problem. The Newsweek article describes her in particularly unflattering terms, with not-so-subtle Aryan references (“the lady prefers blonds”), a Germanic over-preoccupation with rules and discipline, and an ill-advised focus on inflation rooted in the history of the Weimarer Republik. Bloomberg Businessweek’s article avoids WWII imagery, but similarly describes her as a cold-hearted incompetent leader, hopelessly stuck in a German paradigm of austerity and unable to grasp the new global economic realities.

I have been puzzled by this concentrated journalistic fire on the German chancellor in recent weeks. Why target her, when the euro crisis clearly did not originate with Germany, and when most country leaders are struggling with their response to the new economic challenge? At this stage, everybody is groping in the dark for a viable economic framework (the division of the US leaders on the virtues of tax reduction vs. stimulus spending constitutes exhibit A), so why zero in on Angela Merkel as particularly incompetent in this crowd of fumbling country leaders?

At the risk of inflaming the debate, these two articles seem to me to tap into both anti-German and anti-women-as-leaders sentiment. One way of hiding our own lack of answers is to find a common enemy, and what better enemy could there be than a German one, and a woman at that? The German thing is annoying because it reflects the continuing parochialism of some portion of the US electorate (witness Herman Cain displaying his utter insensitivity to global affairs in the infamous Uzbekistan interview) (link 4) and the willingness to mobilize against a common imaginary enemy, Germany in this most recent development (although China is the most common boogeyman, hello Donald Trump).

While the xenophobic overtone is annoying, I have particular trouble with the woman thing. I find it striking that both articles describe Angela Merkel as left-brained, analytical tendencies (the lady wrote her doctoral thesis on quantum chemistry) and highlight her lack of human warmth (“nobody really gets close to the chancellor”). What would we want Angela to be? A soft flower seeking men’s help in solving her government’s problems? A “don’t cry for me, Argentina” chancellor? Barack Obama is also predominantly left-brained, analytical and professorial, and arguably struggles with generating empathy among his electorate, yet this is not the stuff of magazine covers.

I am particularly troubled by the implicit reference to the lack of femininity of Mrs. Merkel. The unflattering pictures in both articles imply a “she’s not really a woman as we think of women” imagery, which is disturbingly sexist. There have occasionally been unflattering pictures of male leaders in magazines in the past (most recently Mitt Romney on the cover of Time Magazine), but they have not had the same gender-specific quality. Unlike many countries of the world, the US still hasn’t had a woman as its leader (Hillary Clinton came close in her 2008 presidential bid, and she generated some of the same anti-woman sentiment), so we may have to wait until then to see this ugly feature of anti-women-as-leaders sentiment finally fade away.