Women in Action — Conversation with Gill Whitty-Collins
Author of 'Why Men Win at Work'
Gill was born near Liverpool in 1970, the youngest of 3 sisters. Upon graduating from Cambridge University, she joined Procter & Gamble, where she led global brands such as Olay, Always and Pantene. She swiftly moved up the ladder to Marketing Director, General Manager, and finally Senior Vice President. Her story and vision should inspire you to join the force to make gender inequality history.
GB: Gill, thank you very much for speaking to Women in Action today! In your book, ‘Why Men Win at Work’, you focus a lot on the fact that having more women in leading positions is in the interest of every business. How far are we from seeing this becoming fully acknowledged and acted upon?
GWC: There are stacks of unequivocal research and data that show that businesses with a strong representation of women at the top levels deliver better results. And yet still here we are, with 90%+ of companies and organizations choosing men for their leadership positions and most a very long way from 50/50 representation at Board or Executive levels. So that shows us that people are either not aware of the data, or they have not truly understood and embraced it, or they are not interested in growing their businesses by acting on it and leveraging equality and diversity! It shows how deep this issue is and how difficult it is to make progress, when people continue perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy that is ultimately not in their interests.
GB: You talk about “the invisible and unwitting things that men do that do not come from bad intentions but that do have significant negative consequences” that you have experienced and observed during your career. Can you give us some examples?
GWC: I believe that the vast majority of men are good, decent, and have the right intentions — but nonetheless, they unintentionally and unwittingly do things that hold women back in their careers. One example is the way men behave in meetings, where they are three times as likely to interrupt a woman as a man and thus reduce the power and impact of women’s thinking and contributions. Or choosing ‘Mini-me’ versions of themselves because they like the familiarity, instead of choosing people who are different, think differently, and bring diversity. Another example is not contributing equally to the unpaid work at home of housework, cooking, and childcare. Or having an expectation that this is not equally shared by their employees, whether they are men or women. Women take 80% of the responsibility for this unpaid work, and it impacts how much time she has for her paid work versus her unencumbered male peers — we all only have 24 hours in a day. There are many unwitting things like this that happen, and which result in managers believing that men are better performers than women — even though all the data shows that women have equal intelligence, competence, and capability.
GB: So, why is it that ultimately men “win at work”?
GWC: There are many reasons why men win at work, many of them deep, complex, and sub-conscious. But in a way, the reason can be summed up simply: men win at work because, ultimately, we believe they are better, and we are therefore more likely to choose them for the big jobs and promotions. The book explores all the dynamics that lead us to believe this when we know it is not reality.
GB: What are the key factors that need to change in order for gender equality to advance significantly?
GWC: Many things need to change for us to see true gender equality, but I believe one of the most important priorities for any business or organization that wants to address this is to ensure you don’t have a male-dominant culture, at any level. It is not possible for a woman to feel a sense of belonging and comfort as her authentic self in a male culture, and thus not possible for her to perform to her full potential. If you want women to rise equally to the top, you need to create a balanced culture that she feels she equally belongs to and can perform in — otherwise, the men will always thrive more easily, even if they are not as talented as some of the women.
GB: In your experience, what are the key differences in the way men and women exercise leadership?
GWC: I’m personally not a fan of gender-based generalizations about leadership approaches; I believe both men and women have the potential to lead in a variety of ways. I certainly don’t subscribe to the currently fashionable view that women have a monopoly on empathetic leadership. What I do believe is that sometimes we choose leaders for their confidence or charisma instead of for their competence — and we certainly have a few examples of this in politics. Given that, for many reasons that begin as early as childhood, men are generally more confident than women, this can sometimes lead us to poor leadership choices. As a result, we can conclude that men lead one way and women another when in reality this is because of the individual we chose to lead. I believe we should start by identifying the traits and competencies we want in our leaders, rather than be swayed by their charismatic confidence.
GB: Why do women often act against their interests? For instance, by not supporting other women and/or by supporting male candidates (look at politics) that do not promote women?
GWC: There is a chapter in ‘Why Men Win at Work’ called ‘Sisters are (not) doing it for themselves’, which talks about this and the lack of real sisterhood at the senior levels. There are many things we need men to do in order for us to make progress on gender equality, but this one is fully on women. I find it extremely disappointing when successful women don’t put the ladder down for the women behind them — but above all, I find it sad because I think it comes from a lack of confidence in those women, who feel threatened by the competition because of a scarcity mindset from having always been the only woman at the table. There are also many reasons, which date back to our beginnings, why women do not like to see another woman being a ‘tall poppy’ and, sadly, prefer to chop her down. I think women need to stand together on this one — yes, sometimes we are in competition, but certainly, no more so than we are with men.
GB: Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of “Why do so many incompetent men become leaders”, argues that the issue is not that women lack confidence; it’s that men have too much of it instead. Do you agree?
GWC: I definitely think that women don’t have enough confidence. Too many women have what I call ‘Perfectionist syndrome’ and don’t feel confident until they feel perfect — which is a big problem given that perfection doesn’t exist. I actually think we can learn from men on this — they don’t wait to be perfect or for things to be risk-free before they speak up or put themselves forward. The problem is that we all like and value confidence in people (it’s human), so we can believe in the confident man and not notice the competent but less confident woman.
GB: We just passed the International Day of the Girl. What advice would you give to young women?
GWC: I have 3 wishes for every young girl:
1. Do a team sport and stick with it, even when you want to drop out — it will teach you about teamwork, leadership, and resilience and skills you will use throughout your life and career.
2. Say goodbye to ‘Perfectionist syndrome’. If you wait to feel perfect before you feel confident, you will wait forever because perfect doesn’t exist. And you will miss out on a lot of things.
3. Know yourself and your strengths and get yourself into a culture that values and leverages you as you are. And if you find yourself in one that does not, have the courage to walk away and take your brilliance somewhere else that does.
GB: One of the sections of your book that I liked a lot is called “And now what the hell are we going to do about it?”. That section lists very concrete suggestions for parents and teachers, media makers, managers and recruiters, and so on. If someone is reading this interview, what would you advise him or her to do tomorrow?
GWC: Yes, ‘Why Men Win at Work’ has a To-Do list for everyone who wants to make gender inequality history — for parents, teachers, media providers, businesses, women, and men. So what I would love you to do tomorrow is read the book, because everyone who reads it (men and women) tells me it has helped them understand the issue in a way they never have — and they now know what to do about it. But if you’re not ready to do that, the one thing I would ask is that next time you are in a meeting, have a look round and see if women and men are equally represented at the table. If not, do what you need to do to fix that. I promise that when you do, you will get better inputs, better discussions, better decisions — and better results.
GB: Anything you’d like to add?
GWC: I think we are far too positive, patient, and polite about gender inequality, and we need to stop being so. BC (Before Covid) we were stuck, now we have gone into reverse and are at crisis point. It is 2020, and we are still living in a man’s world, with men running companies and countries while women are running homes. It’s time for a sense of urgency to take action and make real progress now. We don’t want our daughters and granddaughters to inherit this unequal world.
Gill Whitty-Collins is an Author, Keynote speaker, Board member, Consultant & Coach.