International women's day: The power of the female management team
To celebrate International women’s day, Mazuma Accountant’s Lucy Cohen reflects on her firm's female management team, in a world where fewer senior business roles are held by women than their male counterparts.
Yesterday I cried at my desk.
I am the CEO of a company. I am, by other people’s description, a bit of tough nut. I am articulate, bright and sassy. I am human. And yesterday a perfect confluence of business, life and family stressors layered upon me and I cried.
For some people this is their worst nightmare. Imagine the absolute shame of crying in front of your colleagues. My staff must think I’m a weak leader now, right? They must have lost all respect for me - how will I ever get them to take me seriously again…
Let’s rewind a bit.
For what seems like forever, the idea of a business leader has prevailed as someone who triumphs without emotion. They overcome the odds, they lead their staff boldly and bravely and never show weakness. They negotiate hard and are not be messed with.
If you Google image search the term ‘business leader’ you’re met with a plethora of images of men in suits looking stern, or professional, or shaking hands with other men dressed in suits. Powerful stuff. But it’s not true, is it? This idea that being a leader requires you to be some sort of emotionless automatron is codswallop. I actually think it’s pretty damaging to the leaders of the future.
I went to an all-girls school from the age of 11-16. In those years I learned the power of female teams. Of course at the time it didn’t cross my mind; it was just the norm. But as I have advanced in age, and life has thrown more experience at me, I‘ve realised how valuable those formative years were for me.
In my secondary school, I was no longer in an environment where “boys played football and girls played netball” as had been the case in primary school. In fact, in primary school the punishment for naughty boys was to play netball with the girls, instead of playing football. I hope my teachers cringe when they think about that now.
No, secondary school had no gender divides because we were all girls. So we just got to do everything. I never questioned that the outside world was any different.
It came as somewhat of a surprise to me when I was asked at networking events whether I was working for my dad’s company. Or if I was the company PA.
So after those sorts of experiences, it never really occurred to me that the very fact of my gender might raise eyebrows when I set up my own accountancy firm in my 20s. Rightly or wrongly there is a stereotype of what an accountant looks like. And myself and my business partner most certainly didn’t fit it. It came as somewhat of a surprise to me when I was asked at networking events whether I was working for my dad’s company. Or if I was the company PA. When I answered the phone I was asked on more than one occasion if I was the secretary. Even in 2006, it seems that some gender stereotypes prevailed in the world of accountancy.
As our company grew and we needed to take on staff, something quite interesting happened. I started noticing our culture evolving. Because of the way that we work, our roles are attractive to working parents. We offer a great flexibility of hours and are always willing to make things work for the right person. By the very nature of parental leave at the time (back then only women were taking it, and even now it’s predominantly women who reduce their working hours for family reasons), we noticed that our roles were being applied for by professional women who wanted their careers as well as their family. With us, they didn’t have to compromise - they could have both.
Perhaps a company led by two women also seemed an attractive proposition to other women in finance. Finance has a bit of a macho reputation - we looked like we were offering a different style of leadership.
Finance has a bit of a macho reputation - we looked like we were offering a different style of leadership.
So as people progressed throughout the organisation, we have ended up in a noteworthy position of having an entirely female management team.
(And before I get accused of gender bias - yes we do hire men. Currently we have about a 67/33 female/male staffing ratio. And we have had male managers in the past. Hiring is always based on the right person for the job first and foremost.)
What’s the point here though? Big deal; you’re a woman and you hired women and now they’re managers. Who cares? Well, it makes the dynamic of our organisation really quite unusual - especially in the industry we are in.
Forbes reported in 2016 that almost four in ten businesses in G7 countries have no women in senior management positions. Globally, the proportion of senior business roles held by women stands at 24%. A study by Visible Women in 2016 found that nearly two-thirds of accountancy firms have no women listed as executive board members, partners or senior accountants, with nearly all having five or fewer.
So for us to have a 100% female management is incredibly rare.
And it makes things run differently in the workplace. In the past, I’ve worked in a super macho environment. It was rife with burn out, with sacrificing family time for work, with stress and unhappiness. People felt the need to compete, to divide and conquer, to out-do their colleagues. There was almost a pride in saying that people had worked so hard they had barely seen their children in days. It wasn’t fun. Granted, no one cried at their desks. Instead, they shouted at each other and then went out drinking, only to repeat the cycle again the following day/week/month.
In the past, I’ve worked in a super macho environment. It was rife with burn out, with sacrificing family time for work, with stress and unhappiness.
I wonder what the response would have been to someone crying in one of those macho organisations?
The response in my firm was nothing but overwhelming support. Without delay my senior managers came to me to see what was wrong. I got to talk it through. They all, without hesitation, offered me support. From the practical of “I’ll take that conference call for you” to the emotional; just letting me get it out of my system while they offered me a sympathetic ear.
In our management team over the last 10 years people have experienced births, deaths, marriages, divorces, illness, loves and heartbreak. That’s not unique to an all-female management team - that’s just life. But maybe what is more unique is that all of us feel comfortable enough to share these parts of our lives with each other.
As I have said before in other articles I’ve written, nowadays the lines between work and life are irrevocably blurred. It’s unfeasible to keep those two things entirely separate. So in our company we simply don’t.
The day I cried at my desk was also the day that we did some amazing work as a team in creating new processes that we are excited to trial over the coming months; it was an incredibly productive and inspiring day.
So did crying at my desk make my team think less of me? Quite the opposite.
My authentic display of vulnerability didn’t rattle my team, it rallied them.
And that’s the power of my female management team.