We examine the present in light of the past
so as to better understand the future.
John Maynard Keynes

* With apologies to Karl von Clausewitz

Sex and the Boardroom

A couple of years ago, the Financial Times ran an interesting story about the rising numbers of male senior executives – mostly in the USA, it should be said – who were embarking on courses of testosterone replacement therapy (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/68015bb2-51b8-11e1-a99d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3XOg2RkKw ). The thinking was that ramping up their testosterone levels would make men more confident and more aggressive, better able to take on the world and win; exactly the sort of attributes that it is believed senior managers require.


As I discuss in more detail in my new book Managing for Success (which comes out next week; end of shameless plug), a good many of the problems of the world of business, and by extension the world generally, are caused by too much testosterone, not too little. I think of Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers threatening to rip out the hearts of short-sellers and eat them, or the unrepeatable language quoted by Satyajit Das in Traders, Guns and Money, used by financial market traders to describe not just their rivals but their close colleagues in the same firm. But mostly I think about the ridiculous, prehistoric attitudes to women still exhibited by too many male senior executives.

Although few people – correction, few men – like to admit it, sexism is still rife in many workplaces. Whatever men may say, women are treated as inferior. They are paid less. They are not given the same chances to achieve responsible positions. And they are harassed sexually and sometimes threatened by male colleagues.

Why? Because men are naturally male chauvinist pigs? I don’t believe it. I think the real problem lies in the culture of our institutions which pushes men, as well as women, to conform to stereotypes. Think, for example, of the number of men who, on reaching a certain position of eminence, ditch their original spouse and marry a trophy wife instead. Why do they do this? Some of those second marriages are actually deeply unhappy. But men choose this course becuase they look around and see their colleagues and role models doing it, and feel they should conform.

I have lost count of the number of instances I have heard of where senior mangers divorced their wives and remarried ballerinas. Why ballerinas? I have a theory, unproven and probably unprovable, but I will stick to it anyway. When some men look at ballet dancers gliding across the stage they see their ideal woman: beautiful, graceful, sexually alluring; and silent.

A business culture where there is a high incidence of divorces and extra-marital affairs is a danger sign. Of course many marriages do break down, and that is sad, but it should not be the accepted norm. Look deeper and you will find very often that these are also cultures where women are treated as second-class employees and where sexual harassment lurks in the shadows.

And why is this dangerous? First, in these days of social media, nothing stays out of sight for long. The Internet loves sex, and details of the sexual peccadilloes of executives are likely to go viral rather quickly. And as some recent scandals have shown, investors don’t like this. Generally, if your executives are making headlines thanks to their exploits in the bedroom, not the boardroom, then you have a problem.

On a deeper level, Ho Chi Minh hit the nail on the head: women are half of humanity. Any business culture which denies half its potential talent pool the chance to thrive and create and contribute to the business is shooting itself in the foot. There aren’t so many talented managers out there that we can afford to ignore half of them. If you look at firms that succeed and do well over the long term, you will find that the great majority of them are not run by testosterone-fuelled white guys, but by diverse management teams where women are given, and take, responsibility alongside men.

Still don’t believe me? Let me refer you back to the FT article. A study at the University of California, Davis found that male financial traders are far more active than women, their volume of trading exceeding that of women by about 45 per cent. As a result they incur higher costs and have lower net profitability than female traders. Why? Because the men are overconfident. Male managers need to start thinking with their brains, not the parts where testosterone lurks.

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Adi Gaskell commented on
Management Consultancy

Pradee commented on
Oh, no, not another book on management!

Laurie commented on
Another one bites the dust - reflecting on my new book on management failures