Women’s Leadership and Industry


Questions for 2nd panel discussion for EDGE Women’s Leadership development programme

Trinity College Dublin, 13th March 2019

Q: How would you describe women’s leadership?

Rita Bencivenga: Leadership is a very simple concept. It’s the action of leading a group of people or an organisation to obtain well-defined and measurable results. And the results are the most important part, I would say.

But, of course, things are more complicated than that. I work from a feminist materialist perspective. I see gender as a power dynamic in which one group subjugates another group. I don’t see gender as an individual binary category ascribed at birth. I see gender as a system of power relations between the sexes, a normative and hierarchical system that determines the relative meaning of Femininity and Masculinity, in line with French radical materialist feminists Nicole Claude Mathieu, and Nicole Mosconi. I also refer to the poststructuralist vision and, above all, to Judith Butler.

I don’t believe that women have knowledge of other women’s lives because of their gender. I don’t believe that all women need or want the same things. I don’t believe in a universal notion of what it is to be a “woman” or of what constitutes “women’s concerns”.

But I live in our times, I observe societies and institutions, and I am aware that this is still a minority viewpoint. For most people, gender is a binary category ascribed at birth.

As a researcher and someone who is interested in promoting better inclusion for everyone, I am aware that institutions (including academies and industries) are gendered.

Constructions of masculinity and femininity are interlaced in the daily life of institutions, in the logic of institutions. Women and men bring the constructions of masculinity and femininity to the concept of leadership, constructions they have been enacting in their daily lives since they were born. But these constructions are not fixed; they evolve in time and different cultures, and this gives me hope that in the future, we may live in a more just and equal society.

Leadership styles might be initially influenced by the organisation we work in: when we arrive in a new group, we tend to assume the prevalent leadership style. But later on, a leadership style may be influenced by the individual, who can contribute to shaping the organisation.

There is currently a worrying trend to polarise every action, behaviour, and style as “masculine” or “feminine”: how you dress, how you interact with other people, how you share information… but these are dangerous stereotypes, as they limit the variety of possible approaches.

If companies want to become more diverse and move away from group thinking, they need genuine diversity. In fact, I think that a so-called “female leadership” (whatever it may mean) does not increase diversity nor brings about change if it represents an identical network, comes from a similar background and has similar values to a “male leadership”.

And in my vision, the change we should aim for is towards diversity, not towards a complementarity of two different ideas of leadership.

Q: Many academics want to make the move or feel they have to make the move to industry what do you see are the challenges that they face?

Rita Bencivenga: Industry, like any commercial sector, is guided by results, and your value is linked to that. This is the first and most important aspect.

Secondly, the advantages for academics would be to work in closer contact with reality. They would be able to see how people’s lives can be shaped, influenced, and improved (hopefully) by their actions.

Q: If an academic researcher decides to move to industry, what is your recommendation in terms of what is the best approach? How can a researcher communicate his/her value to industry?

Rita Bencivenga: Working hard, being focused, etc., is not an added value but a basic requirement. I would concentrate rather on methodological, technical, and technological skills, where competencies can be easily verified, and it is clear what type of activities have to be performed.

Academics should learn how to valorise their competencies; there is a chapter in a book that lists the “100+ skills that translate outside the academy” (Title: Professor is in, by Karen Kelsky).

Q: What would you say are the key methods for obtaining strong successful leadership roles in industry …can you also talk about the challenges here? Politics, old boys network etc

Rita Bencivenga: In any organisation, there are formal rules and more informal practices and norms. It is very difficult to access informal aspects, as they are passed on in informal ways: that’s why the so-called old boys’ networks are so powerful. If you can’t influence behaviours, actions, or strategies you are not fully aware of, you may still decide how to react to what happens.

Another important thing to remember, and this is important for younger people, is to try not to be too naive. Competition in the industrial sector (and not only there) can be ruthless.

Q: How do you feel about positive discrimination?

Rita Bencivenga: I am in favour of positive discrimination and quotas, and I do not buy the “mere competence” discourse. In any type of organisation, there are people who are there because they have been positively discriminated against. And in most cases, even if they haven’t achieved their position through merit, they’ve learnt quickly, and they work well now. But at the beginning, they have been positively discriminated against, even if they do not admit it, and sometimes do not even fully understand their privileges; they see them as “natural”.

Women continue to be discriminated against, so I agree with quotas as a way of balancing numbers, giving women a chance to reach the top and, afterwards, not necessarily before, become the best. Just as it is for the others (often men, but not always) who are already there.

Problems occur when women don’t use their new positions to change formal and informal rules, when they don’t send the elevator back down, offering other women the same chances, or when they start acting as queen bees, viewing or treating subordinates more critically if they are female.

But I approve of the concept of quotas for any discriminated group. Diversity is important.

Q: What are the skills needed in industry that academia can never prepare us for??If there is such a thing!

Rita Bencivenga: In general, when I interact with people from the academic sector, I see a lack of understanding of the importance of getting results and getting them as fast as possible. Theoretical aspects are very important; I think they are positive, of course, but they’re often incompatible with the speed at which private companies wish to proceed.

Q:  There is a lot of talks currently around work-life balance, what is the reality of moving up the ranks and having a balance and a family etc.

Rita Bencivenga: We know exactly which are the difficulties of work-life balance. There are plenty of articles, research projects, reports. I would read carefully what other women tell us, and check where I am in my life.

For example, if all women tell us how important it is that their spouse is fully committed to their family and sharing home and care related tasks, or that grandparents are there to look after their children as often as needed, I would ask myself: Does my partner have these characteristics? Is my family supportive?

If I always read about the importance of mentors, role models and sponsors, I should try to have them in my professional life, networking, attending events, joining sororities, etc.

We know where the pitfalls are, we know where women find too many difficulties. If I read that after having their second child 40% of women quit their job and change career, I am bound to ask myself if this is what I want. And if the answer is no, I must plan in advance, so I’m sure I can continue my career, learning from others’ problems.

In the 80s part-time work became the first answer to all women’s problems, the second being leaving their job to raise their children and then going back to work.

This resulted in pensions that are so low that women can hardly survive, and women almost never returning to work after being at home for eight to ten years.

So before buying the promises of the so-called experts, it is better to reflect and foresee the long-term consequences of our choices.

Q: It seems to be a lot more difficult for those who might be in the humanities or arts to transition or even be considered for industry…what are your views on this and what can those academics do?

Rita Bencivenga: Interdisciplinarity is increasingly important. I think people must be clear about what added value their competence can bring to a specific company. I believe the common view that being an engineer or an IT specialist is all that is needed is unrealistic. I have seen too many research projects involving people with disabilities, the elderly, or patients, showing a lack of competence in areas other than technology. Whenever a proposal starts with, “10% of the Eu population is disabled”, or “by 2030, there will be 38 million people with diabetes in Europe,” I know that there is probably a lack of interdisciplinarity.

Q: Would you say there is a difference in male and female leadership in your experience?

Rita Bencivenga: I’ve done many interviews on issues related to being a woman, being a man, and how this affects behaviours, communication, project managing, etc. Some people believe that women and men are fundamentally different, so having both women and men in a group brings complementary approaches, visions etc.

The problem is that there is no common view on the differences women and men bring .

Some say “women are so rational, unlike men who tend to follow their dreams, passions, and to play with technology rather than seeing its social value”.

Others say “men are so rational, and women bring a different approach, influenced by their attention to other aspects, to human beings, to the irrational but equally important parts of their lives”, and so on.

As I said, I don’t believe that humanity can be divided into two groups, men and women. I don’t know what we mean when we say “woman”, “man”, if there is something behind these words. But I think it’s important to understand the dominant leadership vision in the company where I want to work.

Then I can decide whether to comply with this vision, but I must first understand it. And we can usually get an answer by simply asking the company.

Q: A key take-home message for those interested in pursuing a career in industry.

Rita Bencivenga: Before submitting your CV, get as much information as you can via social media and the internet (websites, corporate social responsibility, work-life balance policies, interviews of members of the organisation working at apical level, CVs and career paths of those working in top positions, prizes won for being an organisation with a mission or vision favourable to gender balance) and try to speak with someone working in the company. Try to understand if this company is compatible with your expectations but also with your needs.

But ultimately, you should follow your criteria, and your priorities, because if you are true to yourself, to your vision of leadership, you can bring your vision and change the organisations you work for.

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