Superwoman myth hindering women leaders

by 10 Jun 2008

ROLE MODELS for women in successful management positions are “extraordinary”, to the point where they intimidate rather than motivate other female leadership candidates.

This is a sentiment that researcher Dr Hannah Pitterman came across again and again as in her interviews for The Leadership Challenge: Women in management report, launched on 17 March.

The wealth of anecdotal and factual data in the report has been collated from interviews with professionals from firms such as AMP, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Macquarie Bank and Freehills. The accompanying analysis provided by Dr Pitterman is nuanced, thought-provoking and at times startling in its frankness.

While the media continues to focus on the gladiatorial achievements of women in the workforce, an institutional approach rather than a person-centred approach needs to be embraced, according to Dr Pitterman. “These are women who are, we can say, ‘outstanding’ in inverted commas because they can ‘do it’,” Dr Pitterman said.

Senior counsel Catherine Parry of law firm Johnson Winter & Slattery would fall into Pitterman’s description of the “extraordinary woman”. She began her career at British firm Slaughter and May, spent eight years at the Bar and has also worked for top-tier firms Freehills and Clayton Utz.

“The report, frankly, didn’t resonate with me simply because I’ve chosen the hard road to make this work,” she admitted.

Her response is unsurprising given that she belongs to a generation of women who fought their way to the top, relying on what Parry described as “sheer guts and determination” to succeed. Dr Pitterman said that organisations cannot afford to rely on these extraordinary individuals to tip the balance.

“As long as it is women who have to take on the brunt of that responsibility, I think you get this ‘extraordinary women’ syndrome. And people like to idealise the extraordinary women, and we’ve got a few and we wheel them out, Dr Pitterman said.

“But the high level of personal adaptation that is required to fit in culturally creates an enormous toll on women, and on organisations, because they lose talent.”

Law firms are among the brigade of professional services firms recruiting on the basis on “culture fit”. But, Dr Pitterman predicted – in the face a looming talent crisis – the need to change institutional norms will become even more pressing.

“There is a [growing] understanding that the person-centred approach assumes that a woman has to make changes to fit in with the dominant culture.” she said. “When you start to understand that it is the job culture that is problematic, then you’re really looking at system change rather than individual change.”