Workspace: "She's a Girl, But She Has Brains"


"She's a girl, but she has brains"tcbrPDF normal

Diversity is only as effective as the way we talk about it.

By Alison Maitland

She's a girl, but she has brains

Alison Maitland is co-author of Future Work and Why Women Mean Business. A former longtime writer and editor for the Financial Times, she directs The Conference Board’s Council for Diversity in Business and is a senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School, London. She can be reached via

If this is the Asian Century, then there’s hope that it will also be the century for female parity in business leadership. Women’s representation in top jobs in some Asian countries is already much higher than in other parts of the world. In Chinese business, to paraphrase the Mao Zedong quote, women really do hold up half the sky. They occupy 51 percent of senior-management positions, compared with a global average of 24 percent, according to the Grant Thornton International Business Report 2013. The study points out that countries with the fewest women in executive management, which include the United States and United Kingdom, are also experiencing low levels of growth.

Like old suitcases stuck on an endlessly rotating baggage carousel, the language we use can reflect long-held and often unconscious assumptions that are taking us nowhere.

For more mature economies to compete harder, they’re going to have to examine the role of women in business. One way is to review the language we use.

This was brought home during a panel discussion called “Make your mark in the Asian Century!” at a recent conference I attended in Sydney organized by Women on Boards. Gary Bird, a fellow conference speaker and former Asia- Pacific marketing director at Johnson & Johnson, has worked extensively in Asia and pointed out the disparity in the terms used to describe women in the workforce: “We talk about ‘working mums’ in Australia like an underprivileged group that we have to address, whereas in Asia they are just ‘workers.’”

He has a point. We do not generally talk about “working dads.” Jingmin Qian, a Chinese businesswoman and expert on Australia-China investment, described other differences in attitudes toward women at work. In Australia, she had heard the comment, “She’s a girl, but she has brains.” A male boss had described an all-female meeting as a “mothers’ meeting.” In China, she had never heard such remarks.

Like old suitcases stuck on an endlessly rotating baggage carousel, the language we use can reflect long-held and often unconscious assumptions that are taking us nowhere. Unless we dust it off, examine it thoroughly, and give it a makeover, this language will continue to hold up progress toward vital business goals that involve reaping the benefits of broader experience and innovative views in decision-making.

This is not about being PC and taking excessive care with language to avoid any possible perception of bias, regardless of one’s true feelings. It is about stretching business horizons by focusing on the opportunities of diversity, rather than dwelling on the barriers.

One business leader who has successfully challenged the language is Bob Elton, former CEO of Canadian energy company BC Hydro. In a traditionally male-dominated sector, he raised the representation of female top leaders in the company from 10 to 42 percent and achieved a 50-50 executive team within six years. The words he used—and those he did not use—were significant in shifting culture and attitudes.

Elton knew that female customers were making a high proportion of energy-related decisions in homes around British Columbia. But he did not talk about gender balance or equality. He spoke about leadership with stronger values. He made “emotional maturity” the top criterion for recruiting and promoting leaders, and he told his team to hire the best people and make sure they developed talent that might have been overlooked.

His strong emphasis on emotionally mature leaders is different from the norm. Typically, leaders are chosen based on criteria such as “self-confidence,” which might sound innocuous but is a phrase that carries a lot of baggage.

In an interesting blog post about succession planning, diversity consultant Rebekah Steele describes challenging and reshaping the perceptions of an all-white, all-male, all-North American team of executives about how different people express self-confidence. At first, team members insisted that they knew what self-confidence looked like. So Steele asked: Might self-confidence look different between men and women?

As they thought about it, the executives realized that men are generally more comfortable than women in promoting themselves and are more likely to display body language and power poses associated in Western societies with self-confidence. Responses also indicated that men tend to oversell themselves, while women often focus on other people’s accomplishments.

This tendency toward relative self-effacement by women feeds into their greater general dislike of terms like “office politics” and their preference for recognition and promotion based on performance. I recall a U.K. bank struggling to persuade women to take part in a training program about organizational politics. When the company eventually realized the problem was the course title, it changed it to “Raising Your Profile.” Women flocked to it.

As Steele points out, self-confidence is expressed differently not just between genders but also between cultures and age groups. Rather like the subtle distinctions in men and women, the norm in Chinese culture, for example, is a more humble, indirect approach than the masculine American manner and highlights team, rather than individual, achievements. Appreciating these differences, and adapting to them, opens the door to hiring and keeping a broader cross-cultural talent pool.

In our efforts to change the language, we don’t always get it right the first time. Take the trend inside big companies in recent years to talk about male “champions” or “supporters” of diversity. Fantastic to be a champion, but that’s not enough to change how you go about your day job. It suggests, as other diversity initiatives have over the years, that the problem lies with the target group—women, gays, the disabled, etc.—whereas, in fact, progress won’t happen until the dominant group starts to adapt and change. It’s far better to talk about men “leading” change rather than merely “championing” it.

There’s also a challenge when it comes to addressing the aging workforce. What language should we use here? Should we really lump together everyone who is 50-plus into one group when it actually includes multiple generations of workers? And what do we call them? “Mature” is certainly better than “older,” but doesn’t it suggest a ripe, wrinkly plum, rather than an experienced person who may be as energetic as a college graduate, if not more? Does it also carry the unintentional implication that anyone younger than 50 is “immature”? It’s tricky.

There’s often talk of the benefits of “gray hair” in senior roles, denoting experience and wisdom. But as business psychologist and author Binna Kandola has entertainingly pointed out, gray hair is actually a very male attribute. Societies exhort women to spend time and money avoiding gray hair, so to use the term as synonymous with gravitas has the unconscious effect of encouraging bias against women in top jobs.

These challenges are particularly acute in rapidly aging societies such as Australia’s. Deloitte estimates that by 2030, there will be more than five million Australians aged 55 to 70, of whom only a third will still be in the workforce. Faced with serious skills shortages, companies urgently need to find ways to get more of these workers to stay on.

National Australia Bank has an award-winning initiative called MyFuture to help employees think about extending their career, often with a change of pace, rather than just retiring. “MyFuture avoided any age annotation such as ‘gray’ or ‘mature,’” explains Alison Monroe, managing director of Sageco, the consultancy that helped develop and implement the program. “We like to talk about ‘late career’ rather than ‘retirement’ transition.”

With more and more people having second, third, or even fourth careers, the language around age and retirement also needs to adapt. Talking to managers and employees about career “stage,” rather than focusing on age, is a good place to start.


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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.