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On the book "The Female Vision: Women's Real Power at Work", by Sally Helgesen and Julie Johnson - an Italian case

A refreshing theme - and for me some reasons to feel depressed

It's always refreshing to come back home at Pulsewire, at least as it is reading something new.

Refreshing, and able to inspire thoughts, and comparison.

I've just finished reading the e-book version of "The Female Vision". As often happens reading books by Sally, I found a deep resonance with many episodes I've lived myself, or witnessed. I then feel an urge to compare, and would the book allow, to place into it a number of tiny sheets with notes.

Then, as you move towards the end of the book, a feeling of deep sadness falls over my soul, and stays there...

Why? Because I'm in Italy...

I'll try to get clear.

Sally and Julie state a very interesting truth. Despite huge efforts in promoting women leadership in companies of any size, the actual number of women in power positions remains small.

Of course, this under-representation is a disadvantage, as the authors explain. This is in line with many studies, which confirm more gender-equilibrate companies are more profitable and resilient. Plus, I add, nicer places to work in.

Why, then, aren't gender-equilibrate companies not so diffused to date, after more than 17 years work?

According to the authors, the problem is rooted in lack by streamline organizations by the ability to integrate the female vision, that is values, ways of perceiving reality, ways of knowing and ways of action which are typical of women.

The program devised is fascinating, a path for women and the companies to evolve more inclusive - and in the end profitable - cultures. As a method to form places where women too may thrive.

Comparing with our situation in Italy, I found a major point which may not immediately applicable to our case.

All works fine, if companies define themselves as enterprises aimed at creating value and being paid for this. And in a mature economy this may be the case.

In Italy, it isn't.

Among the many purposes companies may have I found (by personal experience) the following:

  • Providing director-level, well paid places to non elected politicians
  • Exposing a presentable face to "real" businesses by the secret services
  • Washing capitals generated by criminal activities
  • Giving people a strong identity in this fluid, changing World
  • Inventing new "needs", and then satisfying them obtaining money in return
  • And, yes, doing something useful and trying to sell it.

Needless to say, any argument in favor of efficiency of production or sales, or long-term resilience, goes immediately second class if "doing something useful" is not in a company DNA. And as I've seen, women are especially rare in companies not aimed at value production.

This works in the reverse, too: if a company has few women in real power position, there is a good likelihood this same company will not be a reliable supplier, will not pay in the prescribed time, will provide products and services much below acceptable quality. Or a mix of all these.

In other terms, men-dominated companies are seldom reliable partners.

The illusion of normative prescription

As an entrepreneur, a part of my job is in identifying prospective partners with whom my company may work in reciprocal satisfaction. They may not be companies in the strict sense - they might be individuals, or non-profit organizations, or research institutions and universities. These subjects may be experienced or newbies, but what I have to look for is, eventually, trust.

A very simple way of assessing the characteristics I'm looking for is, at least in theory, looking for some documented quality system, like a recent and maintained ISO-9001 certificate issued by some respectable institution.

But, is it really enough?

In my opinion, no! ISO-9001 and the like focus on a very tiny part of the process. These standards say a lot on whether a company actively and systematically monitors the quality of its products and services, but impose very little on the quality itself.

Quality, it turns out, is a very broad concept, whose meanings depend largely on the situational context.

In software engineering, one of the businesses of my company, the whole "quality" splits in many specific "quality characteristics", like e.g. "robustness", or "modularity", or "readability", to not neglect "maintainability", "efficiency" and some others more. All these terms have quite specific meanings in the context of software business, and to some (little-but-not-insignificant in my opinion) extent even measurable with more or less objective metrics.

Now, the ISO-9001 says nothing on which quality characteristics the products of company XYZ should stress. What ISO-9001 says is more or less this:

"If you, company XYZ, define characteristics A1, A2, ..., An as relevant, then an ISO-9001 increases the likelihood XYZ's products or services will comply these characteristics to an extent which can be measured."

That is, nothing!

OK, if the business of XYZ is, say, in nuclear industry then there will be other standards with compelling technical, nitty-gritty prescriptions. Like, for example, the IEC 61508.

But if you live in lucky countries, like Italy, these norms are not legally mandatory, so that choosing the right quality characteristics and engineering practices is in the last end left to the sensitivity and sense of responsibility of company owners and managers. Very often, however, these costly practices will be avoided, and sub-standard, unuseful and sometimes harmful products will flood the market.

But having an ISO-9001 certified quality system, company XYZ will inundate the market with a flow of products, each rigorously sub-acceptance. Is requested, they will even provide a ton of documentation explaining how they have done to reach such a brilliant result.

The ISO-9001, read by a narrow ans tightly-focused mind, is just a formal alibi. The convenient fiction, socially accepted, of "well-doing". A very good way to hide under a nice carpet an evil, or completely lacking, governance.

The same applies to diversity programs (which in Italy, incidentally, are practically unknown - as the concept of "gender equity").

Narrow-mindedness, and sometimes sheer incompetence, love to hide behind an armor of figures, or prescriptive standards. Or anything conferring the appearance of strength and authority.

Unfortunately, when you are in business with a prospective partner appearance might give some lucid polish, but what matters really is substance.

And substance, more often than not, is akin to the neglected "feminine" values of passion, nurturance, love for the process...

Money for values

How to survive, as an entrepreneur, in a context where most companies act on covert agendas, where corruption is endemic, and in which organized criminality is not (as one of our Government ministers publicly told a few month ago)
a myth?

I have no magic receipt, of course (and the fact my company is surviving now does not says whether it will in the next 20 years, although I hope it strongly). But, with my colleagues, elaborated a tiny principle we are trying to apply: money, in return of real values.

We are beginning to use this method with suppliers of key "parts" (engineering services, for examples). In our contracts, we are very explicit not only in the end result we want, but also about the process and, even more important, the people acting it and their core motivations.

A nice example of field in which this approach may work is software development.

Although often presented as a macho-only business, software development benefits a lot from a highly "feminine" mindset.

Developing software programs actually means writing long codes in some programming language. Now, this code may be written in the spirit of a "challenge to the computer". But this way, people put very little attention to details, and overall comprehensibility of code.

The very best programmers, in fact, do not write "for the machine", but for people.

They imagine how users, maintainers, testers will react, and what they will really need. Then, try to fulfill these projected expectations. They will spend time "trying to figure out", and not just typing on a keyboard. They will interact with people.

These "feminine" programmers produce a "better" code. Simpler, understandable, often maintainable.

And we want precisely them as colleagues.

The preliminary contract for software developers has a very long section dealing with teamwork, relational abilities, desire to tend, and so on. Provisions are taken to ensure (at cost for the supplier) that the right kind of people is sent to work with us.

I'm considering to extend this line of action to other fields, like mechanical and electronic design.

I wonder what might happen, would other companies follow our example. Money, in change of right the kind of values which so many companies neglect, or can't see. It would trigger a revolution - or a large scale Darwinian evolutionary event, the economic equivalent of a mass extinction followed by a new setting.

Even in Italy...

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