The question was asked of me once, “Are women responsible for keeping women suppressed?” I prefer to think not, however experience keeps me grounded in reality. Sometimes it is the case that women suppress or damage other women’s opportunities in the career stakes. Why?
There are many reasons and we have probably all heard many theories, but the answer can sometimes be found in our own innate behaviour.
At our core, we maintain instinctive animal behaviours which means we are not immune to triggers that drive us in the fight for survival. That fight is often about resource access and allocation. Simply put, it’s about supply and demand.
Scarcity has a direct impact on human behaviour. If opportunities or resources are in limited supply (for example, in the corporate sense, managerial roles) and demand among women is high, innate genetic programming triggers behaviours intended to give us an advantage in the battle for those limited opportunities. Achieving advantage bestows individual dominance on a person.
Dominance theory is all about preferential access to opportunities or resources over someone else.
In studies of social animals, the highest-ranking individual is often labelled the alpha. Both males and females can be alphas and achieve that status through many means, including social effort and building alliances. Those social efforts may not always be positive.
Once the ‘pecking order’ is established, dominance is held through competitive behaviours. The behaviour of the sub-dominant animal is critical. If a dominant animal perceives its status is threatened, it can then threaten the sub-dominant individual. The sub-dominant must then either challenge the dominant, or defer. It’s often the behaviour of the sub-dominant that maintains the dominance relationship, rather than the dominant constantly asserting themselves.
In the corporate context, we need to consider the implications of dominant theory, especially when it comes to what that might drive in terms of initiatives around trying to achieve gender balance in the workplace.
It means that we cannot ignore power plays and we need to tackle behaviours on a number of levels. Stopping those who dominate others is one step; empowering and building courage among the sub-dominants is another.
More opportunities the answer
But there is a more obvious root-cause intervention. Ensure that supply of opportunities is sufficient so that dominance becomes less of an issue.
Remember that this is about the fight for survival and resources, and the supply issue lies at the heart of the situation.
The issue can only be resolved when we actually start offering more opportunities for more women. We need to ensure there are greater opportunities, in jobs, promotions, access to influencers, recognition and support. Until that occurs, the risk is that dominance theory will derail all gender initiatives, and be a drain on organisations.
To add to this challenge, we find ourselves in a world where traditional roles and opportunities are challenged by technology. There will be fewer roles for all as we continue to digitise work. We need to think about how we manage our way through this supply/demand issue. If we continue to suggest that the solution is for women to win more roles, then men must lose, and at a greater rate than before. Dominance theory is only going to be exacerbated as the supply/demand issue worsens.
There must be a significant shift towards more innovation and entrepreneurship to provide more roles for all and in order to achieve that, we will need to find ways to further support women who want to invent and innovate.
We will need to recreate work, to create more opportunities.
This article is an edited version. The original version appeared in the June 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as “Mean girls”. AHRI members receive HRMonthly magazine 11 times a year. To learn more about membership options, click here.