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Six Feminist Myths: Myth #3

Those hidden patriarchal power structures are at it again.


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'It's harder for women to have a career'

A common claim in the gender debate is that there's a so-called 'glass ceiling' at the workplace that prevents women from reaching high positions. Women get a part of the way, it's claimed, but then their careers are stopped by men who watch each other's backs and actively thwart the women simply because they're women.

These men are usually categorised under the catch-all 'invisible structures' or 'patriarchic structures'. To refer to 'structures' is easy because they're not visible, and so it's also difficult to prove they don't exist. But the burden of proof rests on whoever makes the accusations.

Men are more competitive

Let's stick to facts. There are a number of natural factors that contribute to men on an average getting further in their careers than women. None of these factors have anything to do with discrimination or misogynistic values. What this is really about is the difference between the choices of the sexes and their way of being.

As I wrote in the chapter on sex as a social construction, there are important biological differences between men and women. Even if there are significant individual variances, we can ascertain that men on an average are:

  • More competitive
  • More prepared to take risks
  • Better at focusing their attention on one task at a time

Those are qualities that should have a great impact on success in a career. It's a very tough competition, and that means as well that small average differences between the sexes will have a big impact on the statistics. Compare if you will with sport where fractions of a second can separate the winners from the losers.

There's been extensive research that shows the importance of the difference in attitudes between the sexes for success in their careers. Let's study a few examples.

Which sex worries most about career?

London School of Economics carried out a lot of interesting research into career differences between the sexes. The researchers have concluded that on average there are significant differences between the sexes when it comes to attitude about careers. This is what Dr Catherine Hakim wrote:

'National 'house to house' inquiries in Great Britain, Spain, and other countries show that women can be placed in three very different groups when it comes to life objectives, values, and ambitions: a minority are careerists, a minority are interested in the home and family life, and a majority try to combine work with duties at home. In contrast, men tend more to have a careerist attitude, even if a significant minority are looking for a good balance in their work life.'40

Catherine Hakim wrote the following in January 2011.

'In most European countries women still have the ambition to marry upwards if they can, with a man who is better educated and earns more. This pattern is just as discernible in the Nordic countries as in other parts of Europe. Women continue to use marriage as an alternative or a complement to their careers as employees.'41

In yet another report Dr Hakin gives an example of how attitudes end up getting many women to abandon their careers.

'Studies of apothecaries in Great Britain, the US, Canada, and France reveal great differences between the sexes in salary and position within the company, even in this completely mixed and highly qualified profession. The wage gap in Great Britain was 27%, much higher than the national average. But the gap can be completely explained in terms of number of work hours, work history, and the type of job chosen - not by sexual or race discrimination which has been eliminated in the profession by an acute shortage of workers. Women in the apothecaries are drawn to jobs in their local area, part time jobs or temporary jobs, and jobs where the work hours don't conflict with family duties. Men in the profession concentrate on ownership of independent apothecaries, something that results in long work days and the added responsibility when running one's own business. Other men move towards management posts in large retail chains, which also results in long workdays and more overtime as the price to pay for higher earnings. These mixed careers show that sex discrimination isn't stopping women from reaching senior positions.'42

In a recently completed British study,43 the Institute of Leadership and Management looked into the career attitudes of 3,000 of their members, both men and women. The results showed that women have significantly lower career ambitions than men and significantly lower self-assurance. The Institute's opinion is that this is the reason there are fewer female managers - it's not a 'glass ceiling'.

Their report says: 'Fewer women than men have the ambition to be middle echelon managers, division managers, to become part of the corporate management, or to sit on the board of directors'. Penny de Valk, CEO for the Institute of Leadership and Management, told the Daily Mail: 'Women are more sensitive to the risks associated with promotion, which leads to a more cautious attitude towards career opportunities'. The Daily Mail wrote in a comment: 'the glass ceiling's only in the mind'.44

Two Swedes who've been interested in studying careers from a gender perspective are Ebba Franke and Birgitta Ahltorp who together wrote the book 'The Game in the Pyramids'. I'll cite the website of one of the author's consultant companies where the book and its contents are discussed.

'A strong feeling that women really don't want power or increased responsibility at work is what got them to write the book. Birgitta Ahltorp and Ebba Franke both have experience working in male-dominated jobs. Ebba Franke, who's been a manager in several different companies, has encouraged many women to take managerial posts. But when they finally get the chance, most often they don't dare take it. This has made me very disappointed, she says, wondering if maybe all the women who shouted loud they never had the opportunity actually think it's more comfortable remaining where they are.'

'Birgitta points to several causes: Women slide into the victim role. Better to complain and keep an eye on one another than do something oneself. And instead of trying to get the job they want, they go after the jobs they think they can handle.'45


Research at the University of Chicago46 shows that women are significantly less interested than men in jobs where salary is based on individual competence. 'When salary potential was mainly based on competition, men were 94% more eager to apply for the jobs than women', says John List, professor of economics. This must reasonably connote less eagerness to invest fully in one's career, once it's been recognised to be fiercely competitive and having salaries based on performance.

When it comes to academic careers, there's an interesting study47 that was carried out by two professors at Cornell University in the US. They were curious why relatively few women have careers in science, technology, and mathematics. The researchers went through 20 years of material and concluded it's not because of any resistance to women. There are instead three decisive factors.

  1. Women often prefer careers where they can work with people rather than objects.
  2. Women chose children ahead of career in the age that's most critical for laying the foundations for an academic career.
  3. Those with an aptitude for mathematics are overwhelmingly men.

The Cornell researchers found that when all merits and other factors were equal, it's not more difficult for women - instead it's actually easier.

A recent SIFO study in Sweden showed that 40% of the men but only 30% of the women want a managerial post. This means a bit more than 30% more men than women. The study was carried out with individuals in the age group 25-35 and with at least one university degree, and was published in Ny Teknik 18 April 2011.

It's the hours

To reach the really top positions one needs a lot of commitment and effort. It's therefore interesting to note that twice as many women as men in Sweden have chosen to work only part time. According the Central Bureau of Statistics, men work 82 million hours per week whilst women work 60 million hours. Men work 36% more than women - an enormous difference.48

This is a understandable cause of the career successes of the two sexes. 'It's the hours', says Monica Renstig, CEO of Women's Business Research Institute and the Renstig Consulting Group. 'You can't make a career out of working part time', she says. She also says: 'It's the greatest number of work hours that wins'. Svenska Dagbladet summarises her message in an article49 from February 2011 withs: 'Women are going to have to work more if they're interested in their careers'.

There are many signs that women on an average don't maintain the same energy level to make a career as men do when they've both come a bit along the way. For example, Jacob Wallenberg said that he noticed in his companies that women often jumped off their careers in the age group 40-45.

'Right when they're set to move into corporate leadership, right when I really want them to stick around, right when they can seriously qualify for board seats: that's when they quit', laments Wallenberg.50

Women are also on sick list a lot more than men. After their first child, if children are involved, women are on sick list twice as much as men. That's shown in a report from the Institute for Workplace Politics Evaluation.51 That situation remains for 15 years. In addition to the higher incidence amongst women of time off for reported illness has negative repercussions for their careers through less attendance at work, it also has an indirect influence on their careers inasmuch as greater absence doesn't go well with high positions.

We can also note that a remarkably high number of Swedish women are considering going over to part time work or even to leaving their jobs completely. A study carried out with 9,000 mothers by Familjliv.se52 showed that 67% of Swedish women would rather spend more time with their children. And more than half of them believe more women would be housewives if they had the chance. According to a survey53 by Aftonbladet, 70% of the women responding would like to be supported by men and work as housewives. Even if these surveys are not statistically significant, they give us a good indication of what the climate's like.

It's obvious that attitudes like that are catastrophic for a career. It's like An athlete after olympic gold who instead of working as much as possible decides to reduce training by 30%, and in addition skips a lot of training sessions, and in addition is thinking of dropping out of the programme completely. And even if there are of course many women who don't share this attitude, there are still enough to make them visible in the gender gaps in management. Career is an extreme sport. Jacob Wallenberg says in the interview mentioned above: 'It takes an enormous amount of work to reach the top. One has to respect what's required to reach senior positions'.

Yet another example of how men on an average show more willingness to work harder for a career than women: men are more willing than women to move if their employers ask them. The managerial headhunter corporation Transearch carried out a study54 in 2010 that showed that two thirds of the men but only half of the women would consider moving to get a more interesting managerial position. 24% of the women responded with a flat 'no' - only 10% of the men were unequivocal.

No structures found

Feminist debaters like to claim that women meet resistance and are being thwarted by what they call 'hidden structures'. It's therefore interesting that three researchers at the University of Stockholm recently completed a study55 of that very thing. Representatives for the political, financial, and cultural elites were studied over an extended period in four Swedish communities. The results were unequivocal: the researchers found absolutely no signs of hidden sexual power structures discriminating against women in leadership positions. The women had the same status in their networks as the men.

Nope - there's no such thing as a glass ceiling. And the cause of the lower representation by women at the top is that women as a group don't have the same priorities for their lives as men and are less willing to make the sacrifices needed for successful careers. I cite Jacob Wallenberg yet again.

'I've got nothing against equality. Of course I want women to have the same opportunities for development and promotion. But I sometimes think that certain women want to assign their problems everywhere but with themselves, in their own personal lives. You can't solve everything with gender quotas, new rules, a change in attitude. Some of it's got to do with living with the choices one makes and accepting the consequences. And women have to look in the mirror.'

The difficulty in getting women in high positions (despite an explicit ambition to preferably hire women) is seen in an interview with Michaëla Blomquist, CEO of the headhunting company Michaël Berglund Executive Search. She gave an example of the problem in an interview56 in 2010.

'The clients very much want a woman. The person they're after is 37-43 years of age. There's no discrimination involved - that's just a way to get different age groups into management. The client might already have two who are 55. The recruit will be responsible for approximately 120 employees which means they previously have to have been managing 50-60 employees. So now you're into a recruiting base where most of them have small children, they can have lost four to five years when they stayed at home with their children, and they were about 30 when they had their children. A great many of these women haven't had time to train for management. As much as I'd like to, I can't give the client a woman who previous was boss for three employees.'

One often hears things like 'there are certainly many good women in that company an some of them should get a position in top management'. That's not a logical way to think about things. And for two reasons. One: there are usually a lot of good men - but most of them won't get a chance to reach top management. Two: it's not enough to be 'clever'. You might have to be 'excellent' - and in addition be it in the right area and the right way. And then there's the personal chemistry that has to work. I'd like to say that there are myriad 'clever' and even 'excellent' men who've never reached the top and most likely never will. A 'clever' woman doesn't have a 'right' to a top position.

Female management on the rise

It's important to remember that the gender distribution in the workplace isn't static. However you measure things and whatever sectors you're looking at, the number of female managers is on the rise.

Survey company Nyckelinstitutet released statistics57 on female managers in 2010. They concluded that their own key number, an indication of the number of female managers, has gone up the past 13 years from 0.49 to 0.89 - an increase of 75%. Nyckelinstitutet's technical expert Bino Catasús says that if the trend continues, women and men will be evened out by the year 2014.

Sweden's local authorities and regions announced58 in 2007 that of the 356 management positions they'd filled the previous 12 months, 173 (49%) were women and 183 (51%) were men. Equality between the sexes has already been achieved.

The number of female managers in the state government has risen dramatically. The agency for government employers reported59 in 2010:

'The proportion of female managers has increased dramatically in state government. All told there are now about 4,800 female managers, about 38% of all state managers. Ten years ago that figure was 21% and the raw number 2,800. If the trend continues at the same rate, the state will achieve completely even gender distribution in seven years.'

The website Ekonomifakta publishes statistics on the number of female managers in public administration as a whole. Their most recent figures from 2009 show that the proportion of female managers is 54%.60

Svenskt Näringsliv wrote already in 2005 in their report 'Holes in the Glass Ceiling':

'We see clearly from the statistics that the proportion of female managers has risen dramatically in the past ten years. [...] Women dominate in the younger ages in all management categories. Men are in greater number amongst the older managers. This mirrors a dynamic over time where we can witness a successive increase in the proportion of female managers. [...] Of special interest is the fact the female managers have grown in number the past ten years amongst civil engineers. Civil engineers are an important recruitment base for higher positions in Svenskt Näringsliv's member companies.'

Svenskt Näringsliv presented new statistics61 in 2010 that showed that the proportion of female managers continues to grow. Their figure was 28% in 2009, an increase by one percentage point in a year. The figure has risen by one or two points each year since 1998.

Medlingsinstitutet is on the same track and emphasises that especially CEO positions are all the more taken by women. Quoting from their report:62

'We see from the report that the proportion of women in the category 'Management private sector' has increased by 50% from 2000 to 2009, from 18% to 27%. The greatest increase in percent took place in the category chief executive officers where the proportion of women has increased by approximately 60% between 2005 and 2009.'

The website Ekonomifakta wrote in April 2011: 'The proportion of female managers varies from sector to sector. The overall trend however is that the proportion of female managers in all sectors is on the rise'.63

Generally speaking, everything indicates the proportion of female managers will continue to increase. I'll quote professor Andrew A Beveridge who conducts research into demographics at Queens College in New York: 'the simple explanation is that women are better educated than men today. The differences are enormous. 53% of the women but only 38% of the men in New York had a university diploma in 2005. This means women get better jobs'.64 As mentioned, the dominance of women in higher education is just as evident in Sweden as it is in the US.

Men discriminated in managerial recruitment

The widespread urge to be politically correct means that many companies, agencies, communities, and other organisations are very eager to increase the number of female managers. Preferably they'd like to achieve an even distribution very quickly, despite the lack of female candidates with sufficient experience. This means they resort to affirmative action for women - sometimes expressed, sometimes not. In some situations they say right from the get-go: 'it has to be a woman'.

The effect is that with the same merits, it's many times easier for a woman to reach a top position. I'll go so far as to state that it's common that a woman who is not as well qualified will get the position instead of a man who is better qualified. This is of course discrimination against men, even if it's being done in the name of equality.

Following is an excerpt from the report 'Amazonia - World of the Future Where Women Rule' by professor Arne Jernelöv. The excerpt shows how female gender has become more important than competence.

'A French headhunting corporation state that they were forced to revise and restructure their database of experts, promising managers, and board candidates in recent years. We used to have 95% men in our database but that didn't match demand', says the new CEO. First, second, and third priority now for all types of organisations and positions are women. Now we list promising female candidates already when they're 30 years old. Men usually get onto our lists for higher positions first at 40 years of age, but the demand for women is so pervasive that work experience has become a second class criterion.'

As a Swedish example of affirmative action for women I again cite Michaëla Blomquist, CEO of headhunting corporation Michaël Berglund Executive Search, from the same article.

'The clients want a woman. [...] Recently we had a client who was close to choosing a girl as sales director in an executive committee, she was 33 years old, had limited management experience but enormous potential. She'd been brilliant. But they chose the other candidate who also was a woman but had greater management experience. What's interesting is the client was so frank about her coming as far as she had, it was much more unusual ten years earlier.'

Jacob Wallenberg said in the aforementioned interview: 'I've hardly been involved in appointing a man to the board these past years'. Which can reasonably be attributed to affirmative action for women. Another quote from the same article:

'The problem with board posts is according to [Wallenberg] that it's rare that men are promoted two or more levels but now they demand we do this with women.'

Men barred from mentor programmes

Many organisations have gone so far as to formalise affirmative action for women. There are examples of different forms of manager training programmes and mentor programmes offered only to women in order to help them in their careers. These programmes are found in both the public and private sectors. Of course this too is discrimination against men.

An example of this 'girl curling' is Krus, an agency that supports the government in matters of strategic cultivation of competence in the state administration. They write on their website:

'Krus work to increase the proportion of women in managerial positions in state administration. We are now offering Career Coaching for you who are a state employee and a woman. In our programme you'll help to research different career paths and to develop your career ambitions. You'll be given tools for how you and your agency can exploit your potential and be matched to greater or new challenges. The programme is based on a combination of individual coaching and group exercises spread over a period of three to four months.'

Even the bailiff authority discriminates against men. They wrote on their intranet on 19 November 2010:

'Do you want to develop in your profession and do you live in Stockholm, Gothenburg, or Malmö? During 2011 we are planning a mentor project with men in leading positions in the judicial system as mentors. The mentors want to help young female jurists to dare to take the step to become managers.'

They've invented a method65 at the University of Umeå to swiftly product female professors by creating a 'fast lane' for them. An attempt is made where 20-25 women who are thought to have potential to be professors are given the opportunity to minimise their administrative and pedagogical assignments in order to devote more time to research, and in that way more quickly meet the requirements for professorship. The university board allocated $3 million for the project which also includes recruiting guest professors of the female sex.

The Royal Institute in Stockholm announced66 2010 that in two years they'll have increased the proportion of female professors from 8% to 15%. Almost twice as many. This cannot reasonably happen without affirmative action for women. The one responsible, vice rector for faculty development and equality Gustav Amberg, says that in 5-10 years he expects 'even better numbers - 40% - 60% women'. Note that he said 60% female professors, not 50%, as his ultimate goal. The Royal Institute call their career system 'Tenure Track'.

Here's another sign that pubic sector Sweden treats men as second class citizens. At the initiative of the government, 200 women have taken part in a programme called 'Board Power' with the state's development company Almi Företagspartner. The delegates have, amongst other things, been given board of directors training and been assigned each their own experienced mentor. As a result of that investment in women, 100 women have been given positions on Swedish boards of directors, according to a report67 from Dagens Industri.

It can be worthwhile to mention that the National Audit Office in 2010 criticised the fact that the majority of members of the Judges Panel - whose task is to tell the government who the best new judges are - are members of the feminist network Hilda. Hilda works to increase the number of women in high positions in the judicial system. We should investigate whether this situation can be damaging to our reputation, they wrote.68

Five year moratorium for men

Affirmative action for women also takes place in the private sector. SAAB have an 'equality plan'69 for example: 30% of wage setting managers are to be women by 2015. When a quantitative goal is formulated in that way, it can't be anything other than affirmative action for women. Volvo's mentor programme is only for women, its goal to put more women in high management. The programme's called 'Walk the Talk' and in 2010 was given an award by the feminist Fredrika Bremer Association.70 Another example is the mentor program Womentor sponsored by the industry organisation IT & Tekekomföretagen to help women in their careers.

Just how far this atmosphere of hostility towards men has gone when it comes to managerial positions can be illustrated by the fact that an op-ed article with the following paragraph can at all be published in one of Sweden's biggest morning newspapers:71

'We therefore suggest a moratorium in Swedish business: for the next five years, all white, tall, heterosexual, blond, and blue-eyed men 40-50 years of age shall be placed at the bottom rung of the employment hierarchy, in university corridors, at the news agencies, with boards of directors.'

The article was published in 2007 in the Bonnier newspaper Sydsvenskan and was signed by, amongst others, the press manager of a national teachers union.

To summarise: there are no career obstacles that specifically target women. The career game is a tough game for both sexes. There is no glass ceiling. The claim that 'women have a tougher time making a career' is a myth. Ceteris paribus, the female sex has an advantage in today's career climate.

I'd like to end this chapter with a new quote from the report 'Amazonia - World of the Future Where Women Rule' by professor Arne Jernelöv:

'A core issue in this report is that the process, more than 100 years old, whereby women step by step rise out of their former subordinate position will continue past the point where men and women are equal as far as their power and influence in society - and this will lead to Amazonia, the society where women rule.'

Copyright © Pär Ström/Stiftelsen Den Nya Välfärden. Translation copyright © Rixstep. All rights reserved.

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