The equal opportunities act and managing the differences

<a href="">Cristina Simón</a>. Professor. IE Business School

3 July 2007

Though the Equal Opportunities Act will help promote equality in the business world, it fails to address a key issue: Men and women often have different ideas of what constitutes success.

The recent enactment of the Equal Opportunities Act is aimed at promoting equality among men and women in all aspects of life. Statistics show that women still lag behind men in the business world. They also show that even when women are active in business their work conditions and economic terms are inferior to those of their male counterparts.

All the legal ingredients for change are there, but it’s still unclear whether it will really happen. If we look at the pioneers who led the ground-breaking movement in favour of gender equality, such as in the United States, we see that the results of their efforts are disappointing. The University of Berkeley just completed a study on the situation: In 2002, only 5% of senior corporate management jobs were held by women; today only 20 of the 1000 Fortune-list companies are led by women. This seems to be the result of the so-called opt-out revolution, a term that was coined at the beginning of the 21st century in response to a whole generation of women who, after having graduated from the best universities, ´inexplicably´ retired from their professional careers.

In 2003, half of the lawyers graduating from Yale were women, and the figures for Berkeley, Harvard and Columbia were 63%, 47% and 51%, respectively. As occurs each year with recent graduates from these elite universities, they were hired without thought to gender by the best law firms in the country. Then came the revolution of the ´female opt-out option´. Today female partners in law firms total only 16% even though, as the author of the report points out, access to senior management corporate programmes has been the same for all.

The most common explanation for this decision seems to be that looking after children becomes a priority once a woman’s biological clock´ begins to tick, although this ticking takes place increasingly later in life, provoking far-reaching demographic changes. Reality, on the other hand, appears to be far more complex than this superficial interpretation would suggest. Although a woman’s decision to abandon the career path comes with maternity, the reasons go far deeper and, in my opinion, have a lot to do with the clashing views that men and women have of work and professional success.

In the business world, the value that men put on power and social status do not coincide with a woman’s idea of success. The job title that appears on a visiting card is not as important to a woman as to a man. Money does not seem to be a priority either, particularly among executive women with a partner who contributes substantially to the family income.

So what does spell success for a woman? In their search for a more balanced way of life, women seem to consider success the ability to integrate work with other activities they find fulfilling, such as maternity.

Basing our analysis on this theory leads other pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. As Lisa Belkin, the creator of the term ´opt-out revolution´, pointed out in her article in The New York Times, "women are redefining success and, by doing so, we are also redefining the work concept".

A reason exists for this different interpretation of success. Because the business world has been shaped by men, it exemplifies male values in its definition of success and failure. It also embodies their criteria for negotiating and dealing with the market and competitors. Needless to say, this vision does not necessarily reflect the values that women hold.

The result: when women are faced with difficult professional decisions that-- in the best of circumstances—lead to a success that they neither understand nor want, they tend to abandon the professional ship. Indeed, extreme competitiveness is not a leading female trait.

If this is an accurate description of the situation, the Equal Opportunities Act may not be enough to rectify it. A good number of social changes are needed, most of which require time. On the other hand, these changes promise to be exciting. Of course, the presence of women in senior management is vital, because it is there where the foundations of corporate culture are laid and where the values that shape professional careers are decided.

Examples such as the President of Microsoft España, who took maternity leave after the birth of her third child, help break down stereotypical prejudices, because her absence did nothing to hurt company results.

In conclusion, the Equal Opportunities Act is more than welcome. But we hope that it is accompanied by new work habits that are decided on by women in visible management posts and which demonstrate the different ways of interpreting success. Not all success is exemplified by the work addict, normally a fierce competitor or an aggressive yuppie. I am sure there are also many men who would happily jump at the opportunity to continue their professional development in a more serene and balanced way.


#IECampus, the Campus of the Future

See video
Follow us
IE Agenda
Most read
IE Business School | María de Molina 11, 28006 Madrid | Tel. +34 91 568 96 00 | e-mail:


IE Business School

María de Molina, 11. 28006 Madrid

Tel. +34 915 689 600