Why the CSR world has a more equal gender balance

As any of us who work in the corporate responsibility ‘industry’ know, it’s much more balanced between the sexes than other industries.

Having in the past worked in both the technology and automotive sectors, this seems like a fair statement to make.

The Economist recently decided to take on the debate about what can, or should, drive better gender equality in business.

(There’s a fantastic Margaret Thatcher anecdote in the article: “Margaret Thatcher made no secret of her contempt for the wimpish men around her. (There is a joke about her going out to dinner with her cabinet. “Steak or fish?” asks the waiter. “Steak, of course,” she replies. “And for the vegetables?” “They’ll have steak as well.”)

Having noted some important (and largely correct, in my book) views, such as:

“The new feminism contends that women are wired differently from men, and not just in trivial ways. They are less aggressive and more consensus-seeking, less competitive and more collaborative, less power-obsessed and more group-oriented. Judy Rosener, of the University of California, Irvine, argues that women excel at “transformational” and “interactive” management. Peninah Thomson and Jacey Graham, the authors of “A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom”, assert that women are “better lateral thinkers than men” and “more idealistic” into the bargain.”

The piece then goes on to say that:

“What is more, the argument runs, these supposedly womanly qualities are becoming ever more valuable in business. The recent financial crisis proved that the sort of qualities that men pride themselves on, such as risk-taking and bare-knuckle competition, can lead to disaster. Lehman Brothers would never have happened if it had been Lehman Sisters, according to this theory. Even before the financial disaster struck, the new feminists also claim, the best companies had been abandoning “patriarchal” hierarchies in favour of “collaboration” and “networking”, skills in which women have an inherent advantage.”

This all makes sense to me. I know generalisation is VERY dangerous territory, but in my years in business I have definitely seen women be better collaborators and men as better at being focused on one specific task, naturally with exceptions.

An example would be that in what constitutes a large part of our business, conferences, women make much better organisers and men make better salespeople.

I know some people won’t like me writing it, but it does seem true to me. (And it doesn’t make anyone ‘better’ than anyone else, just different)

Hardly irrefutable evidence, I am aware.

The world of responsible business has clearly understood, organically I would suggest, that the above quotations contain much of merit, and that’s why we see a much better gender balance in this ‘industry’. By its very nature the CR world attracts a more diverse talent pool.

Of course, at top management level, that still stops abruptly, but some progress, albeit slow, is being made.

Where the Economist gets it totally wrong is in the conclusion to the article.

Perhaps driven by the the constant Economist need to editorialise (surely outdated now?), the author tries to give a definitive answer to a fiendishly complex question, saying that:

“Women would be well advised to ignore the siren voices of the new feminism…Despite their frustration, the future looks bright. Women are now outperforming men markedly in school and university. It would be a grave mistake to abandon old-fashioned meritocracy just at the time when it is turning to women’s advantage.”

This is where I disagree. As the article itself points out:

“Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission calculated that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 60 years for women to gain equal representation on the boards of the FTSE 100”.

Companies will need to make a big extra effort to get good female executives into top management, for a variety of reasons, as many of us know.

Corporate responsibility will succeed as a business strategy and ethos both because of single minded aggressive drive, AND due to constant re-iteration of the need to collaborate, compromise, admit errors, and listen.

Which is why this book is important reading for your (likely) male chief executive.

And also why CR directors with real power need to make sure they have a say in how the HR department works, hires, and builds capacity in female executives.


  1. Interesting take on the Economist article, Toby – do you think the CSR field is more gender balanced because diverse employees are more interested in the subject matter or because CSR managers seek out a more diverse team?

    The Glass Hammer actually recently published an the Economist article too – you can check it out here: http://www.theglasshammer.com/news/2010/01/07/2010-gender-equality-is-here-and-other-media-myths-that-keep-unconscious-bias-alive/

  2. Thanks Melissa. Good question. I think it would be for both reasons. Perhaps the former a little more than the latter.

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