How do women manage in male dominated industries? Is their approach seen as being soft in comparison to their male counterparts? It’s been a few years since I worked in the male dominated industries of Finance and IT. I don’t think the balance of genders in management has changed much since then.
As women started to move up management levels, it was typical for many of them to take on the male style of command and control. I didn’t think this style worked. There was a lot of hierarchy, a lot of waste and ineffectiveness. From my observations, middle management was not delivering very much. My first management role was with Barclays Bank as a project leader, focussing on the delivery of projects and making sure all the systems worked. I was allocated to a small business area within Barclays, where I was given a lot of independence. While command and control was not my style, I wasn’t sure what sort of manager I wanted to be.
I read a lot of books on different styles of management. One thing stuck in my mind. I believe it was Tom Peters who likened management to being a conductor of an orchestra. Like a conductor, an IT manager is dealing with specialists, who are intelligent and good at what they do. They know what’s required, so there is no point in telling them about their job. Instead, an IT manager must encourage them to work together and use their skills to the best of their ability. I decided that this made sense.
Through direction and support for my IT team, it became very strong and they were working well together. The results we achieved were so good I was promoted to a new section in Business Project Management. However after I left, the team’s operation collapsed. The person who took up the role was unable to keep the momentum going. The company recognised the team was struggling and asked me to go back and sort things out. Despite strong advice that “you should never go back,” I returned with the resolve that the next time I moved on, the team wouldn’t fall apart. My concept was to make myself dispensable. I created a structure that supported the people and the whole thing carried on successfully the next time I left.
During this time, I had the opportunity to go to an IT conference designed for all the IT Department Heads and Directors who were mainly male. It was during the time when mobile phones were becoming popular. Every tea break, it seemed as if all the managers were on their phones to their teams except me! I began to worry that maybe I was doing something wrong. Then I realised that I trusted my people and had left instructions for them to call if they needed me, I wouldn’t call them. The other managers appeared to feel the need to check on what was happening in their absence. I was able to focus on the conference and relax and enjoy the event.
At one of my annual reviews, my boss (female) said her only concern what that because I was so people focussed, others would see me as soft. I took her comment on board and went back to my team. I asked one of my management team members, a lady who was older than me and had been with Barclays for a number of years, to give me an honest answer. I explained that I had just been for a review and there was a suggestion that I was soft. She immediately burst out laughing and said I was one of the toughest managers she had ever worked for at Barclays. I expected so much of her all the time and as soon as she achieved one thing, I set her something else. She told me “I love it, don’t stop.” She enjoyed being challenged in her role and most importantly, she saw me doing the same. By being people focussed, I was managing her in the best possible way.
Women looking to have a career in Financial Services, IT or both, need to know that it can be tough especially when they take on a management role. I did have some difficult and unpleasant experiences but as I look back through my time as a manager, I can see that, despite pressure to do otherwise, I never compromised my values and never lost sight of what’s really important to me no matter how high up the corporate ladder I went. I believe that the definition of success is knowing what your values are and living by them.