Aviva’s global inclusion director Jan Gooding has admitted men, not women, have had a bigger impact on her career, blaming the latter’s tendency to fear they could be penalised if seen to be championing diversity.
The former marketer is referring to so-called ‘queen bee’ syndrome – the idea that some women in executive positions hold others back to protect their own power base. But Gooding’s experiences weren’t because women are afraid to trust one another, she assured, rather they are victims of men’s determination to remain in control – and that is why most of the positive influences on Gooding’s career were men.
Speaking at the Diversity in Marketing and Advertising Summit in London earlier this month, Gooding said that “too many straight, white men” had been her “mentors and allies” throughout her career, admitting that support “had not particularly [come from] women”.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are women who have helped me [throughout my career] but when I think about the big moments where I was really pushed to do something or was given an opportunity, it has been men in the main,” she explained during a follow-up interview with The Drum.
“I think what happens is women become self-conscious and just as I find it difficult as a gay woman… I don’t want to be seen to be favouring other LGBT people. I think that’s what happens to women. They’re so anxious about this idea of meritocracy that they end up actually discriminating more against other women than men do and that’s all about trying to belong to the group. We have to say to women that it’s OK to help other women.”
Undoubtedly, comments like this fuel negative caricatures of the ‘power hungry woman’ and yet Gooding said ‘queen bees’ aren’t the ones stunting gender parity. It is still men keeping women out of boardrooms , she argued, before lambasting meritocracy as a “con”. If women feel compelled to undermine each other on the job all the time, it’s because of their frustrations in male-dominated environments where they feel devalued, she concluded.
“I talk a lot about my anger and my shame because I bought into this idea of meritocracy and I have discovered that ‘he’ decides what is of merit,” she told delegates at the conference. “We have the data to evidence that discrimination starts against women – according to Accenture – from the moment they enter the workplace. They are not regarded as having leadership potential in the same way as men – it’s got fuck all to do with maternity leave.”
Gooding’s damning indictment is backed by countless reports and academic studies that quash the stereotype of female in-fighting at work. In 2015, researchers at Columbia Business School in New York scoured through top management teams in 1,500 companies over a 20-year period and found that where women had been appointed chief executive, other women were more likely to make it into senior positions.
However, when women had not been given a senior role that was not the top positioning, the chances of other women following them to executive level fell by 50%, the academics found.
“I have only ever worked for straight, white males – which is shocking and a shame,” said Pippa Dunn, founder of Broody and ex-chief marketing officer of EE. “Most I have liked, admired and thought were excellent at their jobs so it is no reflection on them – but I just think I could have learned more if it had been otherwise. I am the strongest advocate of more diversity.”
As far as executives might think the diversity debate has come, comments like those from Gooding and Dunn belie just how far there is too go. There’s a pernicious myth that women are held back by each other that clouds a 'black and white' mindset that has ensured gender parity has made fewer strides than it should have.
“A number of very important men have encouraged me to go for big jobs and promotions in my career,” said Gooding.
“They not only told me I had the ability, but mentored me subsequently and continued to encourage me. Women have tended to be competitive or harsher judges. There are of course exceptions, but the general point is true.
"It's why we need more men to be even more active on the agenda of gender balance. They have the power and influence to make change happen, and they can give women the confidence boost that is sometimes required. Men have also held me back. And underestimated my potential. So it is hard to generalise just on lines of gender. The whole system needs a shake-up.”