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‘A woman at the top is easily considered a bitch’

23 May 2018
Janka Stoker

Janka Stoker (1970) has been a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change in the Faculty of Economics and Business since 2003. She is also director of the leadership expertise centre In the Lead. After graduating in social and labour & organizational psychology in Groningen, she went on to do a PhD at the University of Twente. She is particularly interested in female leadership and power inequality at the top of society.  

Text Loek Mulder, photo Elmer Spaargaren.This article is taken foirm the alumni magazine Broerstraat 5.

How has the position of women at the top of industry, academia and politics improved in the past few years?
‘The subject now features high on the agenda. Organizations are embarrassed if they are forced to reveal their figures.’

Do you think companies are really bothered? Schiphol recently announced that the new boss definitely wouldn’t be a woman because it would upset the fifty-fifty ratio in the Executive Board.
‘Industry is lagging behind the developments in government – although already with fifty percent women at the top, Schiphol is a positive exception. We are seeing change. We now have a number of role models in top positions, which we couldn't have said ten years ago. Shell boasts Marjan van Loon as CEO, and PostNL has appointed Herna Verhagen as Chair of its Executive Board. These women show that it’s possible.’

But these are just a couple of examples. What about the broader picture?
‘Things are changing, but there’s still a long way to go. Take our University. The number of female researchers and professors is rising. This is partly thanks to the Rosalind Franklin Fellowship for talented female academics, which Groningen can claim as a real success. But things aren’t moving fast enough. I've noticed great initiatives in government, academia and political circles. But you are right in concluding that many organizations are simply unwilling to change and can't see what all the fuss is about.’

This doesn't do much for the Netherlands’ international reputation. Our statistics for female professors put us close to the bottom of the rankings, just ahead of countries like the Czech Republic and Cyprus.
‘Unbelievable. We have a highly qualified population compared with other countries and yet this doesn't translate into positions at the top of society.’

What exactly is going wrong?
‘One of the most important explanations relates to stereotype ideas about what makes a good leader. We immediately think of masculine rather than feminine qualities. We associate a leader with someone who is decisive, dominant and willing to takes risks. And these are characteristics we traditionally ascribe to men rather than women. But it’s not just about how we view a good leader; we also have a stereotype for a ‘good’ man or woman. A good woman is caring, a good listener, doesn’t want to be in the foreground, isn’t dominant, is keen to cooperate and aspires to harmony. We are all guilty of having these stereotypes, women as well as men. But it becomes complicated when you want to appoint or promote someone to a particular position. We suddenly transpose these stereotype images onto real people.’ The characteristics we associate with a leader don’t fit in with our stereotype ideas about women. This doesn’t only make it more difficult for women to be appointed to managerial positions than men, it also makes it difficult for them to make their mark in the position, explains Stoker. Women find themselves in a Catch 22 situation: ‘If you’re a good leader, you're also a bitch. Look at the fuss about the chair of the supervisory board at ABN Amro, Olga Zoutendijk. She had all kinds accusations thrown at her: she was a dragon and much too pushy. But a woman with more feminine attributes is not a good leader. So many women choose to be good leaders and simply accept the fact that people will see them as domineering. You have to be able to take it.’

Would you rather see a quota? It's been introduced in Scandinavian countries, Germany and Belgium and the number of women in managerial positions has certainly risen.
‘It's an admission of weakness. Nobody really wants a quota. What you want is for organizations to see for themselves that they are wasting a lot of excellent potential. Here in the Netherlands, we set a target figure of thirty percent women at the top by 2019. This simply hasn’t worked. The question is: what does the Minister intend do about it?’ According to Stoker, failing to utilize the pool of highly qualified women not only constitutes destruction of capital. Organizations actually benefit from allocating more important roles to women. ‘By the way, I don’t agree that female managers are that different from male managers. We all have our own style of leadership. The differences between men and women in this respect are negligible.’ The main thing is that diversity at the top leads to better decision-making and team performance in broader terms. There is scientific evidence to support this. If a company solely appoints white men with the same qualifications, it is asking for groupthink and tunnel vision. An organization that wants to be creative and innovative is asking for trouble if it listens to a homogeneous group that assumes it is always on the same wavelength.

In the meantime, more women are graduating from universities than men, the number of women graduating in the sciences is increasing and the wage gap between men and women has almost disappeared. Can't we just wait until things level out rather than using the drastic remedy of a quota?
‘We thought that the inequalities between men and women in organizations would level out on their own when I was at university 25 years ago. They didn’t. Some processes are so ingrained that you need tough measures to break them down. You’ll only achieve a normal fifty-fifty situation once you’ve crossed a threshold, which is why the thirty percent goal was introduced. Otherwise the assumptions about men, women and leadership will continue to dominate selection processes.’

Men/women at the top of UG
The Board of the University of Groningen consists of three men. This will have to change, says Janka Stoker. President of the Board Sibrand Poppema will leave office in September and Rector Magnificus Elmer Sterken is due to step down in 2019, making room for new blood. ‘At least one of these vacancies must be filled by a woman. The Minister of Education, Culture and Science agrees.’ There are concerns about the appointment procedure. Stoker belongs to the Sleutelvrouwen, a group of academics from Groningen (named after Café De Sleutel on the Noorderhaven). They have already drawn up a job profile for a female President of the Board. This was their elegant way of drawing attention to their ideas about appointing a woman to the higher echelons of the University.

More information about Janka Stoker

Last modified:21 April 2020 2.46 p.m.
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