New men: evidence of equality in management?

In 1994 the UK Institute of Management warned that male managers were in danger of extinction, arguing that new styles of management were required for the next century. The need was for more teamworking, consensus management and "multitasking", skills traditionally thought to be more akin to the way that women manage. Such a change, combined perhaps with more family-friendly policies, was seen as offering new opportunities for women in management. A new study suggests that men have taken this to heart.

Men adopting female styles of management

The Institute of Management's recent survey of their male and female members (A question of balance? A survey of managers' changing professional and personal values", K Charlesworth, Institute of Management, London, (1997)) reports 52% of men as saying that their style is participative (compared with 60% of women respondents) with the same proportion of men and women (30%) claiming to have a consensual approach. Their employing organisations seem to have taken less notice of the Institute: only 15% of respondents described their company culture as participative.

There has never been much serious evidence to support the view that men and women managers approach their jobs differently, so on one level this result is not particularly surprising. However, what is new is the form of similarity revealed. Previous studies have suggested that mean and women both behave closer to male than female stereotypes. Given that all such studies are based on practising managers, a plausible interpretation of earlier findings was that in order to succeed women had to adopt and demonstrate masculine characteristics. Given what respondents say about the culture of their organisations, this form of explanation does not seem to illuminate the current findings.

Another methodological issue may be relevant. This study did not measure management styles directly. Rather it asked managers how they would describe their own style. Previous studies have revealed discrepancies between managers' own perceptions and the way others see them. So maybe their subordinates would not have described so many of these managers as having a participative style if had they been asked (and maybe chief executives would not have been so negative about their companies' culture). Nevertheless, it is still interesting that men now want to be seen as participative rather than leading from the front.

Commitment to home life

The survey also shows that neither men nor women are willing to devote themselves to work to the exclusion of all else. Only 16% of men and 22% of women said that work was more important to them than their home life, with nearly two out of three respondents giving the two spheres equal weight. Employees expect their employers to be more responsive to their family situation with substantial numbers wanting paid paternity leave, improved maternity leave, and help with care of elderly relatives.

Again this may not be as novel as it seems. People have just assumed that men are orientated primarily towards work and women towards home. The strength of this assumption has been such that most research did not bother to ask men about their home lives. However, one study at the end of the 1980s did so. It found that 57% of male managers cited family and personal relationships as a major source of satisfaction in their lives compared with 18% saying career achievements and 12% saying their current job ("Reluctant managers", R Scase and R Goffee, Unwin Hyman, (1989)). In this earlier study, as with the current one, more women than men appeared to be work orientated.

This could reflect something about those women who achieve management status. The Institute of Management study, in common with a number of previous studies, found that women were far less likely to have dependent children than their peers (21% compared with 43% of men). Other studies, including the 1992 Institute study, have found substantial differences even in the proportion of men and women managers who are married.

Equality at work

Being committed to a balanced home / work life does not mean that managers are looking for an undemanding job. Large numbers of both sexes say that they would look for more challenge, greater responsibility and the opportunity to develop more skills in a new job. How will they achieve such jobs? Around a third believe that determination, interpersonal skills and the relevant skills are the most important factors for career success. If this is the case, and if stereotypically female skills are now in demand, the future should be rosy for women in management. However this conclusion presumes the existence of objective and meritocratic selection and promotion processes. A wide range of research makes one doubt whether this is in fact the case. The consistent findings of studies at both organisation and national levels that only 1%-2% of those at the top level of management are women reinforces these concerns.

In the Institute's study, 38% of women continue to cite the "old boys' network" as a barrier to career success. This has dropped from 43% in a similar 1992 survey but still indicates a substantial problem to achieving equality. It may also be that the decline in the number of women saying this is a problem is a reflection not of a drop in the significance of informal networks for success, but rather a rise in the number of women learning to make use of such routes. A quarter of female respondents now say that networking and contacts are important factors for career success.

Commentary

Studies like that from the Institute of Management form the basis for dramatic claims about the changing nature of management and of opportunities for women. While they no doubt contribute to such debates it is important to reflect on the questions they are asking and who is answering them. The study suggests that large numbers of male managers now want to be seen as managing in "female" ways and value a balanced home and work life. Fewer women are reporting informal barriers to career success in management. But the vast majority of respondents say that they do not experience their organisations as participative, and the underrepresentation of women in management suggests they are still not giving equal opportunities. (Sonia Liff, IRRU)

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