She Must Be A British Type of "Feminine"…

I saw this headline come across my Google alerts and thought this was a reprise of the article I quoted earlier where Billie Williamson was interviewed. Now Billie is feminine. Not my kind of feminine. But feminine. I am not sure what kind of model of femininity this 6 foot woman is. And she doesn’t have children. I suspect that she has flown under the radar, per se, not really a threat to the men, and probably comfortably competent in her clients’ eyes. Is it a rule that successful women have to be self-deprecating, humble and willing to be lucky, not smart in order to be accepted by men?

All this is wild speculation, for sure, and perhaps a little unfair. I am sure she is super. But I find these types of articles, in 2007, to be condescending, patronizing, and a waste of time, other than to make fun of. And I rue the woman who agreed to write it.

Feminine women ‘can succeed too’

By Clare Davidson
Business reporter, BBC News

“Ruth Anderson set a precedent in the industry. “This was never planned,” says Ruth Anderson. “I mean” she adds, a gentle Enniskillen accent revealing her roots, “being the first woman in this position.”

Two decades after joining KPMG in 1976, she became the first female board member in one of the so-called ‘top four’ accounting firms. Since then, Ms Anderson, 53, has set another precedent by becoming the firm’s first female vice chairman. It is hard to believe that her progression has really been “pure chance” as she casually says.

“As a student I was adamant to be an interpreter,” says Ms Anderson, a long beaded necklace dangling from her tall frame. But half-way through studying languages at Bradford she decided she did not want to be a teacher or translator, leaving her unsure what to do instead.

A male friend who had studied theology made her realise entering the business world was possible, as she explains at the KPMG office tucked behind Fleet Street.

“When he said he was going to be an accountant I thought it was impossible – he hadn’t studied economics!” laughs Ms Anderson. But it made her think she too could make the leap. She applied to several accounting firms and armed with several offers, opted to join KPMG.

It would be easy to assume from her calm and open manner, that her rise to the top had been seamless. Has she had faced discrimination as a woman? “Oh yes” she says, without missing a beat. One of her earliest experiences came in her twenties as a trainee.

A project came up in Switzerland that she was keen to work on. Speaking French made her well suited for the work – or so she thought.

“But when I asked if I could go on the audit project the response was ‘not a chance'”. The client’s finance director simply “didn’t like women”, she says. That wouldn’t be allowed these days, she points out. “But if I hadn’t enjoyed doing what I do, I’d never had stuck to it for 30 years,” she hastens to add.

Whatever the secret to Ms Anderson’s success, it clearly is not arrogance. “It is not just about being a woman in a man’s world,” she says, as she stands up in her office – making her more than 6ft frame evident for the first time. “I think the large majority in any context tends to bring out the herd instinct that can lead to bullying of a small minority.”

This didn’t make their comments acceptable but “I don’t think I was ever put down intentionally by men. It was never malice,” she adds. Though the situation has improved for women since Ms Anderson started, KPMG suffers from a wider trend seen among city firms. The women at the helm of leading firms remain a small minority.

Accountancy, which has more or less the same number of women and men at entry level, loses a substantial number when they reach their thirties. To tackle this, KPMG has set up an internal support network of women. Progress is slow but the number of women at different levels is improving.

The number of partners for example rose from 14% in October 2000 to 19% in March this year. The firm has increased flexible working options – open to all but taken up mainly by women. In recognition of its progress in this area the firm was recently given Opportunity Now’s City award, for an institution that develops “a culture which encourages flexible working”.

One of the hardest things for women in business in the lack of role models, says Ms Anderson. She is in no doubt as to the women she most admires – “women who can and do juggle a home life and successful work”.

She did not have a family – “a fact of life” but not – she quickly adds – one she regrets.

“All too often women think that in order to succeed that have to be like men,” she says, leaning forward. “But they really don’t”.

“Women can succeed – in business or elsewhere – and remain feminine.”

“I’ve seen so many women try to beat men at their own game,” she sighs as she opens the door to show me out. But what is deemed assertiveness in men is often viewed as aggression in women,” she says calmly.

“Once women feel they can be themselves without trying to be one of the boys – and can be considerate in the process, this will be real progress,” she concludes.”

2 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    she adds, a gentle Enniskillen accent revealing her roots,

    I think that Anderson is Irish, not British. Are you implying that she isn’t feminine, or that you have a problem with feminine women? She sounds like a great role model to me. Working women need more of them, so what is the point of your criticism?

    Do you know of any positive female role models currently working in public accounting? As I am sure you know, the killer hours in public accounting often do not allow one much of personal life. In that respect, it’s much easier for a single woman, than a married one.

    As for myself, I made the decision a long time ago that I was much happier working less hours even if it meant less money. The real problem is with women who want to be on a fast-track to partner (or any other senior level position), but who want the workplace to accomodate the fact that they have two full-time jobs (accountant and mother.)

    Perhaps the up-or-out model of the Big 4 is what needs to change.

  2. Francine McKenna
    Francine McKenna says:

    Thanks for your comment. I suppose an Irishman is not technically “British”, not being from the island of Great Britain, but she’s in the UK, so I was characterising her as a Brit…She seems more matronly than feminine to me, based on the picture.

    The point of my criticism was with the article itself, its theme and some of the quotes. The fact that someone feel the need to write an article profiling a very successful woman and focus on her “feminine” or other personal characteristics is, to me, an insult to her and bankrupt. There were too many references to her clothing, her tone of voice, and her demeanor, references that would never be part of an article about Sir Mike Rake, for example. Whether she does or doesn’t regret having children is not my business. Yes, she may be a role model, but I would want to know more about her management style, her areas of expertise, her clients and professional interests to decide if she is someone I could respect professionally and want to work for. I didn’t read much about that.

    It may be easier for a single woman in public accounting to do the work, but I found that is not easier for one to to succeed to partner. A single woman who can do anything and more that a man does in that environment is seen by the men as a threat, in my opinion. She is not “feminine” enough. (There was a famous lawsuit on that topic at PwC, see below!) A “non-feminine” woman, by their definition does not fit into the family , suburban, wife at home and kids in the best schools model is still the norm given the majority of partners are men. And so we keep seeing these articles…

    I have profiled women who are in senior positions in the firms – Deb DeHaas in Chicago at Deloitte is one of them. There are some others. I can also think of one I worked with and got to know at PwC here in Chicago, a wife, mother and very intelligent partner in a very difficult area, corporate fraud investigations. But she’s a serious, hard working, very driven person and I have no idea what’s that meant in terms of her family life, and personal relationships. As a professional and a person (she had some killer shoes!) I admired her, without worrying if she had a soft voice and a motherly nature, too. Are they role models to women or any other professionals? I don’t know. But you don’t become a role model by virtue of being one of the few to ascend to that level. Certainly many of the men at that level do not deserve that title.

    The profile of many of the US female CEOs is either single or divorced and childless or married to a man who is “retired” and it’s a second marriage so she inherits his children or he takes care of theirs. I agree with you wholeheartedly regarding two full time jobs – partner in an accounting firm should not be one of them.

    Accounting firm denies partnership to woman because she is not feminine enough; the Supreme Court finds sex discrimination, holding that employers cannot “evaluate employees by assuming or insisting that they match[] the stereotype associated with their group.” Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989).

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