When men stand in the way

Being successful means helping all people, including women, to be successful

I recently wrote about the “superwoman syndrome” and other issues surrounding women in the workforce. 

For those unfamiliar with the term, a superwoman is a woman who works very hard to manage multiple roles such as worker, homemaker, volunteer, student, neighbour and community member. The term was the title of a 1975 book by Shirley Conran.

I made the point that employers should focus on developing women not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is the smart thing to do — women are going to be the largest and best-educated group of entrants to the workforce of the United States over the next few years. 

Now I want to write about a barrier to the development of women that is not often discussed (at least, not by many men) — incompetent men who stand in the way or block the way of competent women.

Personal experience

I have seen first-hand, in both my personal and professional lives, through the years, the challenges confronted by women.

For example, my first boss was my paternal grandmother. She ran the newspaper distribution agency in my hometown. Grandma Schroeder, like many women of her generation, entered the workforce during the Second World War when the men joined the armed services. 

However, she stayed in the workforce after the men returned from the war. She worked for more than 40 years, until she “retired” at the age of 77, and then volunteered in the community (transporting shut-ins) until she was nearly 90. 

Widowed as a relatively young woman, Grandma Schroeder had to fend for herself. She put up with sniping comments about her toughness and the fact that she worked and was not occupying a typical female role. 

But she did not worry very much about what people were saying behind her back; she was looking out for herself the best way she knew how. 

My grandmother was no Betty Crocker. Her speech was peppered with quips and credos, one of my favourites being: “Talk is cheap; it takes money to buy whisky.” Ultimately, Grandma Schroeder turned out be one of the most important leadership “heroes” in my life.

So, from an early age, I came to be attentive and sensitive to the challenges faced by working women in our society. 

Rising stars

A few years ago, Harvard Business Review had an article that explored the impact that typical masculine behaviours or characteristics such as over-confidence, arrogance and aggressiveness have on gaining a leadership role. These attributes are over-represented in men as compared with women. 

Historically, the article noted, men have been more successful in seeking and obtaining leadership roles, perhaps as a function of these attributes.

Interestingly, research has demonstrated that hubris is inversely related to leadership effectiveness. In other words, over time, aggressive and arrogant leaders tend to fail. 

For example, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has documented that 80 per cent of “rising star” leaders with whom they had worke through the years, who had turned into “plummeting comets,” shared a common shortcoming — “an interpersonal flaw or deficit” (meaning they did not work well with others). 

Put simply, leaders who are self-aware and modest tend to be more effective than leaders who are vain and narcissistic. Humility (sometimes manifested in self-deprecation), by the way, tends to be more common among women than men.

Demographic trends

It is also interesting to note some emerging demographic trends regarding men in the workforce of the United States. A few years ago, a cover story by the Chronicle of Higher Education explored the fact that men were falling behind women in educational attainment. Indeed, in American colleges and universities, women now outnumber men at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Yet, men continue to outnumber women among the  managerial and leadership ranks, especially in the C-suite. 

Is it not ironic that, increasingly, men who are less educationally prepared are supervising better educationally prepared women?

Perhaps even more disturbing than that trend is the finding, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, that, since 2000, the labour force participation rate of young men without a college degree has declined more than any other age or gender group. For the first time since the Great Depression and the Second World War era, young men are more likely to be living with their parents than with romantic partners. 

Left unchecked, these young men will eventually become 30- and 40-year-olds who find it difficult to fit in or find their way in an increasingly sophisticated economy. Who will have to fill that void? Who will have to support these guys? You know the answer: women.

So, my message is this: If women are truly going to fulfil their full potential, then men must do the same. This means adopting a deep and rich understanding of what it means to be a man in the 21st century, driven by an egalitarian and enlightened perspective that recognizes being successful means helping all people, including women, to be successful.


Daniel Schroeder is president and CEO of Brookfield, Wisc.-based Organization Development Consultants. He can be reached at (888) 827-1901 or Dan.Schroeder@OD-Consultants.com, or for more information, visit www.od-consultants.com.

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