interview Elke Vergaeren

26 Dec 2012 02:48 | Armelle Loghmanian

 Women @ Work

By Melanie Barker


Elke Vergaeren

Senior researcher and co-ordinator at SEIN, a research institute part of Hasselt University

How would you explain that despite some progress made, it is still very difficult for women to achieve top management positions?

Although things have certainly changed a lot there is still a long way to go. While some women have certainly achieved top positions for many the situation is still difficult. The explanations for this have changed over time. The first approach is called the deficit model and compares how women match to men – the dominant group in society. So the question was “what is wrong with women, why do they not achieve?”. In the past women may have lacked education, top level management experience and ambition. We cannot say that women lack education now but there are some interesting points about the ambitions of women. Research shows that women have a wider range of ambitions than men and also this is linked to the level of education. Among highly educated young people there is almost no difference in ambition levels between men and women. However, ambition is not enough and organizations do not reward the ambitions of women in the same way as for men. Senior male managers sometimes assume that women are less ambitious after the birth of their first child.

During your conference presentation you talked about a leaky pipeline rather than a glass ceiling effect to describe the fact that fewer women than men are able to reach the top management levels in companies. Can you give us more details about this?

I think the concept of a leaky pipeline rather than the “glass ceiling” is now widely accepted. This describes the fact that at all levels women become under-represented. Following from the individual deficit model that I have just talked about many reports have now shown that even if women have the same experience, the same educational level and the same aspirations as men, they still find it harder to progress in their career. Something else must be happening and this is what is perceived as unjustified discrimination on the basis of gender. So, the question in research changed from “what is wrong with women” to “what is wrong with companies?” The importance of the informal networks persists and the “old boy” networks are still very much alive. Women’s networks are a valuable alternative but at the moment they are not sufficient to counter the effectiveness of the old boy networks for career advancement. The issues of work life balance are now very much more important and this is not just a women’s issue any more. But, in practice women still tend to pay a higher career price for this shift in values than men.

Can you describe for us typical men and women difference at work?

Actually, I don’t really consider this a valid point or a helpful analysis. Statistically you would say that there are more differences between men and between women that between the genders themselves. Indeed the argument for increasing the number on women on boards is more about the need for more diversity in decision making in general than about the need to have women represented. A range of diverse attitudes and approaches has been proven to result in better business decisions and increased profitability for companies.

Based on your observations, what could women do to be more successful in achieving top level functions in their organization?

This is a very complex question as I have found that the effective solutions for women are very specific to each organization. However, it will always be helpful for women to find alliances within her organization and so networking and mentoring will help with this.

Could you describe what type of measures an ideal company could take to improve gender balance, according to you?

I think this is a more relevant approach. I have found researches to show that the organizational culture of a company will have a very big impact on a woman’s progress toward top management positions. For example, if the culture is to work late into the evening this may have a negative impact on women, some of whom will chose not to work these hours. Not being present in the workplace late may be seen to show lack of commitment but also exclude women from a level of networking and informal information exchange. Another example is a company which had a very linear career progression model. Progress was rewarded and measured by the status of the company car you drove. If for any reason you fell behind this track, for example through a career break after having a child, it would become very visible that you were behind on the career track and this would create strong negative social pressure. In conclusion, although networking, mentoring and leadership programs can of course be helpful for women, changes to these organizational practices would actually be a much more effective way to increase the gender balance at all levels of an organization.

Do you think imposing ratios in favor of more women in board/top executive positions will help in changing behaviors, or would it be the opposite and create some reluctance, because they are imposed, and could ultimately lead to deteriorating the image of women?

I personally believe that quotas are an effective way of improving the gender balance because they are measurable and so companies have to comply. However, as I set out just now, the more important issues are for companies to recognize where there organizational behaviours are inhibiting gender diversity and to make changes to this. If this is not done then women may either be unable to achieve in a company or may in fact chose not to remain.

Elke, a more personal question - you have yourself reached a certain degree of seniority in your own organization: how did you manage to succeed, what skills did you use, and what advice would you give to our readers?

Thank you but I do have to put my situation in context. Indeed I am the coordinator of my institute but it is not such a large sector – I have a “staff” of 15 people. Within the University there are about 500 employed academics and at the level of professor only 22% are women! I am actually working on a research project right now which is looking at diversity issues within Hasselt University so this should provide some interesting results.

Why did you choose the area of gender balance, what drives you?

I had a very great inspiration within my family history. In the 1940’s and 1950’s my grandmother was the head of a primary school and at that time this was a very unusual accomplishment. So, you could say that I have a history of interest in education and gender balance and an inspiration that women could achieve as much as men!

Short Biography
Elke Velgaeren  is a senior researcher and co-ordinator at SEIN, a research institute part of Hasselt University. SEIN conducts fundamental and applied research on diversity, (in)equality, identity and inclusion. Diversity refers to the socio-demographic characteristics such as gender, ethnicity (colour, culture, language and religion), class, age and disability. The research of SEIN covers the economic, social and ethical dimensions of diversity. SEIN also supports actions that promote equality and inclusion.
Elke researched her PhD on the gender aspects of careers in the IT sector. Currently she is working on two research projects. The first is to study the barriers in the career paths at the University of Hasselt. The second is a project looking at gender mixed boards of listed companies in Belgium.

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