Losing balance on the ladder

“I never think, ‘Can I do that job?’. I think, ‘I fancy that job’. I’m never put off because the salary is too big. In planning my career I look to the job after next: ‘What additional experience will I need to get from my next job to get me the big one?’

“I’m happy to consider a sideways move as part of the grand plan. I view secondments as the chance to raise my profile, extend my experience and acquire new skills. I’m prepared to take a risk with a secondment; after all, it is for a limited time only.

“At some point I will need a formal management qualification, but if it is not part of the essential specification for a post I will not be put off simply because it is described as desirable. I do not feel the need to convince myself I can do the job; I just need to convince the selection panel. In any case, I will learn what I need to when I get the job. I understand the importance of knowing the management language and the latest ‘big new ideas’. I’m prepared to go anywhere for that promotion.”

This approach may appear overconfident and overambitious, but it is not atypical of how men think about their careers. Although this is a caricature of a white male manager’s attitude to career progression, it is different from the approach taken by women. This difference partly explains why women do not apply for management posts, particularly senior ones, in the numbers that would be expected, bearing in mind their representation in the social services workforce.

In our quest for a more balanced workforce, particularly at a senior level, we have been asking women why they have not applied for senior posts. They said they would only apply for a post once they were sure they would be able to do every aspect of the job. This contrasts with the typical male approach: “I cannot do every aspect of the job, but I’ll pick it up as I go along.” Women who had applied for posts often said that the deciding factor was being encouraged to do so by their line manager or someone else whose opinion they valued. Some women also reported being put off by a salary that was significantly higher than the one they already had, assuming that the salary reflected a much more demanding job with much higher expectations and an increased level of commitment in the form of longer hours. The male view would be that the salary reflected the market rate.

Recently we advertised several secondment opportunities. Not a single woman applied. When we pursued this, the reasons were that the post did not involve managing staff and that pursuing a secondment opportunity seemed to show a lack of commitment to the team. But the directorate views secondments as broadening an individual’s experience and therefore a good career move. The assumption is that, after a secondment, the individual would be looking for a new job in which to use their newly acquired skills and experience.

Men and women seem to have a different approach to training and management qualifications. Women want to acquire skills to do the job better; men want to acquire qualifications to get a better paid job.

These differences have parallels with people from ethnic minorities. Aspiring black managers have also reported feeling that they need to be able to show that they can do all aspects of a job before they apply. They have said that a significant factor in determining whether they will apply for a job is whether they are encouraged to do so by their line manager or another senior manager. From the comments of individuals it is clear that aspiring black managers have not tended to see secondment opportunities as the pathway to promotion.

Perhaps again this is because secondments often involve working in what are initially ill-defined areas where the individual has to cope with a higher level of ambiguity in the early stages, before gradually getting agreement on what the role involves and how it should be carried out. This being the case, it is difficult for the individual to convince themselves that they have the skills and experience to do every aspect of the job.

Aspiring black managers often link career advancement with gaining formal qualifications. This may be because they feel they have already experienced discrimination when they were turned down for a post even though they had the same skills and experience as the successful candidate. Now, they see better qualifications as the only way to overcome such discrimination.

Feedback from black staff has indicated a lack of confidence in the recruitment process. It has been suggested that balanced interview panels in terms of gender and race and greater involvement by senior managers in management interviews would change perceptions. Changing recruitment processes and prioritising under-represented groups for management training would be a powerful message, but it would not address the gender and cultural differences identified from staff feedback.

If the need is to raise aspirations, increase confidence and encourage women and ethnic minority staff to apply for management posts, mentoring and coaching may be more effective.

Coaching and mentoring would need to be delivered in a working environment that valued diversity. It would be a mistake if we reinforced the view that to get on, women and black people need to adopt the behaviour of stereotypical white male managers. And it would not lead to better management.

The gender and cultural differences identified may not hold for a younger generation who have higher expectations, are more confident and are more career-oriented. The individuals that provided this feedback were from the directorate’s equality and diversity champions group and the black workers support group, representing a cross-section of staff, both male and female, aspiring managers, middle managers and front-line staff. They are predominantly in the 35-plus age group. However, it is this sample of the workforce that forms the pool from which will be drawn the middle and senior managers of tomorrow.

What they said
“Women do not achieve promotion as they lack male attributes.”
“Having a mentor should not be seen as indicating that an individual is not doing their job well.”
“I would guess that the female senior managers that we have are older, have children that are no longer at school or do not have any children.”
“I have been told that I have only been successful because I am black.”
“The reason why black staff want to be bolstered by qualifications when they go to interviews is that it gives them confidence to think that they can compete on a level playing field.”

Blair McPherson is director of organisation development for Lancashire social services. He is committed to championing the cause of ethnic minorities. He started his career as a residential worker in a children’s home and has worked in social services and housing.

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

Under-representation of black people in management posts and women in senior management posts is a long-standing concern in social services. In trying to identify the most effective ways of redressing this imbalance, discussions with staff revealed gender and cultural differences in the way people approach managing their career.

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