Sunday, February 20, 2005

Women make poor leaders, 20-somethings make poor advisers 

Okay, the title is deliberately provocative. But it’s what you might conclude after reading The Sunday Times today.

A feature entitled “Wonder Women...or Wicked Witches” cites a survey which shows that most people prefer working under male bosses. It goes on to list the following stereotypes of women bosses:

  • Maternal and nurturing

  • Demanding and fastidious

  • Unable to see the big picture and take a gamble

  • Possesses both high IQ and EQ

  • Emotional and takes everything personally

  • Susceptible to PMS

  • The article, however, quotes Kamal Kant of career and training consultancy Next Transition as saying: “It is the personality, upbringing and life experiences that determine whether a boss is rational and realistic or ruthless and rough in his approach.”

    And yet, stereotypes do create problems for the victim. Effective leadership relies to a certain extent on the confidence that followers have in their leadership. Insofar as stereotypes undermine this confidence, they can affect the leader’s ability to lead and therefore be self-fulfilling.

    The article cites the ouster of Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina as putting the limelight on women bosses. It could also have highlighted the case of Lawrence Summers, the Harvard University president who created a furore by suggesting that innate differences between men and women may help explain why fewer women work in the academic sciences.

    The Summers case raises the question of whether there are indeed innate differences between men and women that may account for the difference in their behaviour and level of success at work. I’ll leave this question for the experts to sort out.

    But in the Harvard University case, it is not so much what Summers said but how he said it that caused the furore. And that essentially reflects a failure in leadership — ironically, in a man.

    Not that I want to pick on Summers. No man — or woman — is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. And Summers was “man enough” to admit that he made a mistake.

    Which leads me to the second part of this post.

    The Invest section of The Sunday Times today carried the story of an investor in his 60s who seems to have done rather well on his own through staying close to the news. The story says of him:

    Having invested in Singapore stocks for most of his working life, he has acquired an intuitive feel for markets... These days, the last thing he wants is advice from bank advisers who are “too young”, or 20-something, he says.

    He cites a case where one of them kept persuading him to hold on to his US dollar deposits. Going against his own conviction that the US dollar is headed down, [he] held on for a few months until he decided he had lost enough and closed his account.
    The US dollar has fallen over the past few years, so his adviser made a mistake in recommending it. Is the mistake necessarily because of his age or lack of experience? It did occur to me on reading the article that a few years ago, many older and supposedly more experienced analysts also thought that the US dollar was a good investment. Age may not be as important a factor as he implies.

    And yet, my own personal experience does suggest that in Singapore, organisations often do put young people in positions of responsibility for which they are not sufficiently qualified. I know Singaporeans in their 20s in specialist appointments who know less on their specialty than generalists from western countries. Of course, the latter are often in their 40s or even 50s.

    The first point is: Experience counts. And this is important in the light of the ageism being experienced in Singapore.

    In Singapore, good performers are more often than not promoted to managers. While they may also perform well as managers, this practice often means that they stop doing what they are known to be good at while possibly depriving their profession or vocation of their accumulated skills and experience (so it wouldn’t entirely surprise me to see unqualified 20-somethings giving incorrect investment advice). And for those who get promoted to managers but don’t perform well, the problem only gets compounded.

    The second point is common with the first part of the blog. Many people carry and act on perceptions that have not been properly thought through. Whether it is prejudices against women, against the old or against the young, such perceptions, when carried to extremes, not only negatively affect the objects of the prejudices but also prevents society from fully utilising the resources that are actually available to it.

    It is society’s loss. Therefore, it is in society’s interest to correct such prejudices.


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