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Do women become less “nice” in middle age? It would appear that we think so. And that throws an additional wrench into our efforts to develop more gender-balanced leadership teams.

A gender stereotype we hold is that women are kinder and more warm-hearted, nicer and less aggressive, compared with men. But University of California business professor Jennifer Chatman decided to investigate whether that held as we age, after noticing student evaluations of her teaching became harsher when she entered her forties, even as she felt her teaching was improving.

With colleagues, she conducted three different studies of various work situations and found both men and women are perceived as more capable or effective as they get older, but only women are seen as less warm as they age – causing them to be judged more harshly.

This is a critical age, of course, as decisions are often being made for top leadership posts. Perhaps this helps some women – no longer blocked for being too nice – but the fact they are seen as changing negatively is probably a stumbling block for many of them, even if it’s apparently all in our minds.

In her new book, Don’t Fix Women, Joy Burnford argues we have to stop trying to tweak women and instead improve an outdated system that wasn’t designed for them to thrive in the first place. Workplaces were designed by men, for men.

“Centuries of male-dominated cultures, processes and policies need to be shaken up. I’m not blaming men here. It’s a historical situation that has evolved over time and today the priority is about levelling up the playing field,” wrote Ms. Burnford, the chief executive officer of Encompass Equality in Britain.

Her research has found too many career path obstacles for women – and the recent study on niceness fading with age probably identifies one more. She cites fewer opportunities, lower pay and a lack of confidence in being able to take time out for maternity and child care as critical problems. Those issues confront women in their 20s and 30s – typically when they want to start a family – and lead them to fall off the corporate ladder.

And Ms. Burnford stresses it’s not just their tough luck. It’s a business issue, and a clear competitive advantage exists for companies that get gender equality right. To do so, she feels they must pay attention to three areas: flexibility, allyship, and coaching and support.

The first, lack of flexibility, has been a huge obstacle to female careers over the years, yet when the pandemic came it was possible to change the way we worked in many workplaces overnight. We need to keep that same flexible spirit in the future – for men and women to fit life and work together in a more harmonious way with no detrimental effect on productivity.

That can come in many forms. Flexi-time allows employees to choose when they start and end their work day or how long to take breaks for, within agreed limits. Annualized hours allows employees to work a certain number of hours over the year but with some flexibility about when that is. Self-rostering allows employees to choose their work schedule. Shift swapping allows a team member to request a colleague work their shift.

“For me, true flexibility is being able to decide where you work, how you work and when you work, as long as you deliver agreed outcomes.”

The overarching principle should be personalization: Making it work for each individual. Ms. Burnford highlights job sharing, where two colleagues split work in some fashion, perhaps one on duty Monday through Wednesday and the other Wednesday through Friday. Even with some extra costs for the coordinating day when both are in the office, individuals and the company both benefit.

Ian Shepherd, director of trade policy for the British government in a job share with Jenny Ashby, explained to Ms. Burnford: “We can talk through tricky decisions, get confidence from one another and make use of both of our skills. I have actually found it makes me more ambitious in my career, knowing I have a way to balance out work.” Advertise all roles as potential job shares, Ms. Burnford advises.

You also need to create a culture of allyship in your organization in which men are engaged as allies rather than being alienated from the gender debate. This isn’t easy, but many have wives and daughters who suffer from current inequities, so you need to involve them in helping the women in their workplace. Often they are unsure what to do and need assistance developing their skills. Be careful: Some men may talk a good game. You want them to also actively help women.

Reverse mentoring is also something to consider: Senior executives teaming up with more junior women, to exchange insights, reflection and feedback, learning from each other. And you need a culture of coaching in the organization to help people progress, which requires extensive thought, preparation and investment of resources to be effective.

Don’t try to fix women. Fix your organization. It’s more likely to work.

Cannonballs

  • Add pausing to the list of skills a manager needs. Executive coach Lisa Kohn sees many leaders reacting too quickly to situations rather than thoughtfully. Pause to consider the wider context, your goals, the individuals you are dealing with and what the best response rather than the instinctive one should be.
  • Executive coach Dan Rockwell shares these contradictions that can confuse leaders: maintaining openness and staying focused; expressing joy and expecting more; and making people a priority while saying things that hurt people.
  • The secret to efficient note-taking while interviewing job candidates, tech manager Jacob Kaplan-Moss says, is to prepare a detailed interview guide with the questions and pathways you intend to pursue, and behaviours you are looking for, and then to write notes and tick off behaviours as you go through the actual discussion.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.