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Looking for Solutions
The Glass Ceiling in the Netherlands Part II
By Mary van der Boon
(this article first appeared in the XPat Journal)

The first part of this article (in the Spring 2001 issue of The XPat Journal) about the situation for women in management, both in the Netherlands and internationally, concluded that the present picture is rather bleak. Perhaps more so in the Netherlands because there is a culture of denial concerning the problem of inclusion of women in management. In a recent informal survey conducted by international management consulting firm global tmc of male Dutch middle-managers, 85% felt there was no glass ceiling in the Netherlands "because we are so tolerant here".

Many cited, as an example of this, the cases of their own wives who had successfully re-entered the workforce (part-time) after taking time off to raise their children. This pretty much mirrored the Dutch government viewpoint, that either "women place emphasis on other issues than careers" or "the situation will solve itself". Traditionally, neither have been true elsewhere and so are unlikely to reflect reality in the Netherlands.

Our Neighbour
It appears our immediate neighbour is not faring much better: women still aren’t represented on the management boards of most large German companies, and they’re rarely found in the upper ranks, either. Less than 9% of 220,000 top managers in Germany today are women, according to database research by economic publisher Hoppenstedt. And no wonder. Conditions for working mothers in Germany and the Netherlands are behind those of peers in France or Spain. A basic infrastructure for working moms – full-time day care – doesn’t exist in either country. Day mothers, au pairs and child nurses are costly – or even beyond the means of lower-income people. And programmes to promote women to top ranks of Germany’s and Holland’s largest companies are still few and far between.

Address Shortcomings Head-on
Earlier this year in the European Business Review, academic researchers determined that the exclusion of women managers from business and social networks in Europe compounds their isolation, which in turn prevents them from building up useful networking relationships that might be advantageous to their international careers. Men, being the dominant group, want to maintain their dominance by excluding women from informal interactions. The research also suggested that exclusively male networks may be responsible for developing and nurturing negative attitudes and prejudices (stereotypes) towards women managers, and that if corporate women had more access to networking groups then perhaps they could reach senior management positions and in turn partake in international management.

"The strength of traditional male business networks comes out of a trust that’s established through personal friendships, after-hours socialising and a shared acceptance of how business has always been conducted. Until cultural and societal norms evolve in a way that comfortably includes women and men on equal terms, women need to build productive relationships among themselves to accelerate the pace of change," according to Deborah J. Swiss, author of Women Breaking Through, Overcoming the Final 10 Obstacles at Work. Willow Shire, President of Orchard Consulting, has this to say about women and networking: "Men network primarily outside their organisations while women network inside. In order to be successful, women need to develop a balance of inside and outside contacts".

Companies and Government Should Take a Proactive Stance
The International Labour Organisation has published a list of suggested strategies to promote inclusion of women in management positions, all of which could be adapted successfully in the Netherlands:
  • affirmative actions and guidelines should be implemented to genuinely change attitudes;
  • recruitment and promotion procedures and criteria should be transparent and based objectively on competence and merit, and not result in discrimination in practice;
  • women should be given opportunities for strategic assignments and job rotation to improve their promotion prospects to high echelons of management and the chance of breaking the glass ceiling;
  • positive action and equal opportunities policies should play an important role in levelling the playing field and ensuring equal opportunities and treatment for women in recruitment and promotion;
  • given the tension between the demands of family / private life and work at certain periods over the life cycle, ways need to be devised to enable not only women, but men too, to build a career and raise a family. This can include more flexible working hours, reduced hours of work and adequate child and elder-care facilities and arrangements;
  • ensuring women’s equal access to networks both formal and informal, not only in the enterprise but beyond, can provide support and visibility, as well as be a source of invaluable information;
  • diversity management should be used as a response to specific needs, career aspirations, contributions and life-styles of the workforce;
  • there should be commitment of top executives to gender equality and middle managers should be made aware of and accountable for company policies;
  • as running their own business is a potential area for opportunities for women, they should have access to business skills training and entrepreneurship development.

According to a new study by Catalyst, a non-profit research and advisory organisation that works to advance women in business, misconceptions about women’s abilities to handle international assignments and their willingness to accept these assignments are key barriers to women getting selected for the global business arena. Catalyst interviewed and surveyed more than 1,000 women and men expatriates (current and former), expatriates’ spouses, frequent flyers, and human resources executives. As a result of the study, Catalyst recommends that companies:

  • implement formal policies and programmes that offer women global assignments throughout their career;
  • improve employment support for dual-career couples;
  • offer mentoring and networking support while abroad;
  • value alternatives to relocation; and
  • assist expatriates on transitioning back to their home countries.

The Best Man for the Job May be a Woman
The prognosis for the future is hopeful, however. Research conducted recently by the Hagberg Consulting Group, a California firm of psychologists who specialise in leadership development, revealed that women managers are better at keeping people informed, using influence rather than authority, creating and articulating a vision, taking charge, being an inspirational role model, setting high standards of performance, assuming responsibility and managing a diverse workforce than their male counterparts. Furthermore, women are more tolerant of differences and less bound by social traditions. According to Richard Hagberg, "What emerged (from the survey) was the picture of women executives as having a more appropriate style for managing in the new millennium. It’s a much more team-oriented style".

Full Partners
Women must be prepared, however, to acquire the skills necessary to compete and become full partners in the information technology revolution. At present, women make up only 19% of the international science, engineering, and technology workforce, according to a new report by the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development. Women and girls must be encouraged to explore careers in these disciplines for rewarding work and compensation in the coming millennium. New web-sites such as Silicon Sally and Webgrrls are providing role models for the Y-generation.

Knowledge is Power
That women must first become more comfortable with the new economy, and the technology that drives it, is a sentiment echoed by Denise Brosseau, CEO of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs. Denise suggests some ways for women everywhere to acclimatise themselves to these challenges:

  • try new ways of doing old tasks – Think Outside the Box. Consider on-line study as a way of upgrading your skills, particularly if time is a problem;
  • ask your friends for their favourite sites, surf the net and make an eclectic collection of those sites that interest you. Share them freely with others;
  • remember: saving time is saving money, so make use of the advantages offered on the web. Comparison shop for travel bargains, run errands and send gifts online;
  • post your CV to online recruiting sites. An ever-increasing number of positions are virtual, and can be carried out from wherever you are, and taken with you when you move;
  • you can’t master everything yourself, so seriously consider out-sourcing certain aspects of your business (web-site design, customer service, technology research, recruiting and much more);
  • read magazines, such as Fast Company, Business Week, Next, Avanta and Management Today to learn about new trends (many magazines and articles are available, free of charge, online).

Take a Realistic Approach
So does this mean women can all stop ‘playing the game’ and make their natural abilities and strengths more apparent? These strengths are not universally appreciated, according to researcher Frank Greene. In a Wharton Business School study of solo women working in all-male teams, Mr. Greene made a surprising discovery. He found out that women who enter these groups in a quasi ‘helpless’ mode end up getting more help from the men at first, and are then able to move into positions of more authority than women who come on strong and are labelled ‘bitchy’.

Women Have to Help Themselves
Behavioural scientist Shannon L. Goodson argues that women did not create the glass ceiling but they help maintain it. Goodson found that even women who understand how important visibility management is in the modern workplace often hesitate to translate their knowledge into effective self-presentational behaviours. "Women can be competent, assertive role models without becoming pinstriped male clones. But no one’s going to do it for them, not even other women who have made it to the top. If career women want to earn what they’re worth, they have to learn to help themselves – and each other – shine more brightly in today’s competitive work settings." The conclusion? In spite of excellent management and leadership skills, women contribute to their own inability to break through the glass ceiling in subtle ways stemming from personality attributes, social conditioning and learned management styles.

Don’t ‘Blend In’
BBC human resources chief and lecturer Gareth Jones has similar results from his own research. According to Jones, when a minority (such as women in management) makes up less than 20% of a group, they will be subjected to stereotyping. One of the ways women try to minimise being stereotyped, says Jones, is by "making themselves disappear". They become invisible by wearing clothes that disguise their bodies and trying to blend in by talking tough. The result, however, is that by not emphasising their real differences, women are reducing their chances of being viewed as (potential) leaders.

Aim for Sustained Change
Munich-based management consultant Helen Peters concludes that women’s current strategies for interacting with the world are deeply embedded in a day-to-day operating approach that is difficult to change. Further progress up the corporate ladder will require women to:

  • start focusing energy
  • start taking risks
  • stop getting mired in the details
  • stop rescuing and mothering
  • stop making things right or wrong

Constant self-reflection combined with focused mentoring and coaching are required for real and sustained change to occur.

A Light at the End of the Tunnel?
And in the Netherlands? The 25% wage disparity between men and women holding similar positions is one of the greatest in Europe, and is not likely to be solved without some of the political correctness the Dutch view with such dismay. And the Dutch paradox continues to perplex those monitoring the situation. Food retail giant Ahold has long been a guiding light in affirmative action programmes, insisting 50% of all management trainees be women (and linking managers’ bonuses to the process). How then to reconcile this with Ahold CEO Cees van der Hoeven’s recent controversial statement to the Wall Street Journal that "there’s not a woman in this country I would want on my board". As a fan of Ahold’s progressive policies, this author prefers to believe Mr. Van der Hoeven’s comments were taken out of context, but it reveals a disturbing division at even the highest management ranks on how to incorporate more women in management. Dr. James McAllister, Universiteit Leiden professor, feels that "women are probably already adapting themselves in an optimal or near-optimal way to the hostile environment, and deploying a good range of personal career strategies. However, the environment in indeed very hostile, and sometimes not even the best available strategy is sufficient. For the rest, political change at a national level is required".

Useful Web-sites
www.uvon.nl – site for the Union for Women Entrepreneurs, the Netherlands
www.ewmd.org - European Women’s Management Development
www.winconference.net - Women’s Int. Networking conference, Milan, September, 2001
www.fastcompany.com – Fast Company magazine, covering new management trends
www.nextmagazine.nl – Next magazine, for managers in the new economy (in Dutch)
www.avanta.nl – Avanta magazine, for women managers (in Dutch)
www.fwe.org – Forum for Women Entrepreneurs
www.learnthenet.com – Internet for beginners, in five languages
www.siliconsally.net – Silicon Sally
www.webgrrls.com – the women’s tech knowledge connection
www.girlgeeks.com – for professional women (and wannabes) in IT
www.monster.com – international recruitment
www.stepstone.com – UK-based Europe-wide recruitment
www.newmonday.nl – Intermediar’s excellent recruitment site (in Dutch)