Is There a Woman in the House?

10 Downing StreetBy Cleo Thompson (London), founder of The Gender Blog

Lee Chalmers is a woman on a mission – and that mission is to transform the face of leadership and, more crucially, to change what gets recognised as leadership – in both business and British politics. London based, she runs an executive coaching business Authentic Living, working with men and women to help them live their lives with purpose, in an authentic style. Her clients include major global companies in financial services, banking, oil and gas and she has worked all over the world with a variety of different cultures and leadership styles.

Chalmers’ crossover from business to politics came in the summer of 2008, when she realised that many of the issues impacting women and leadership styles which she saw in the corporate world were mirrored in UK politics. Despite constituting 51% of the population, British women still hold only 11% of directorships in business boardrooms, 19.3% of seats in the Houses of Parliament – and there has only ever been one female inhabitant (Margaret Thatcher) of 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British Prime Minister.

Together with writer Indra Adnan, an exponent of the concepts of soft power and balanced leadership, Chalmers founded the Downing Street Project in 2009. Chalmers and Adnan were inspired by Marie Wilson’s US-based work and progress with the White House Project and thought that the UK needed a similar organisation and political intervention.

Needed Leadership Qualities

“Research from, amongst others, Catalyst and McKinsey, has shown that women are excellent mediators, networkers and problem solvers,” explains Chalmers. “They are skilled at keeping cool in a crisis and willing to develop themselves in the face of difficulty. At the Downing Street Project, we believe that these qualities are called for to address the challenges we currently face.”

She continues: “It’s not about men leading one way and women leading in another; it’s about the qualities brought to the leadership and political tables. In the business world, we are now starting to see the need for a focus and a change – for example, the need for a CSR agenda. There is a dawning recognition of the fact that companies can’t exist in isolation and that they need relationships with the society around them. If a company is too “rational”, only interested in the bottom line, and pays no attention to what is happening around it, then we see damage to the environment and to society in general, due to a lack of awareness that actions have impact.”

Chalmers credits Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice for increasing her awareness of differences in gender styles and believes that – “Statistically, women’s leadership contributions are under-valued. The current paradigm in politics and in business is mostly masculine and mostly modelled on male behaviours. People who exhibit qualities such as a command and control style of management, who have a win-lose mindset, who display an absence of emotional input in decision-making, who emphasise tasks over relationships, and who measure success in terms of money as the key benefit to society, are seen as strong leaders – but this is only a partial picture. These qualities are valuable but taken alone, they don’t provide for a balanced culture in an organisation or in society. So bringing in other dimensions will balance things up.”

And how might this look? “Indra’s research suggests that balanced leadership, in both business and politics, would add collaboration and co-operation; ‘flatter’ structures of engagement would allow more people to bring their gifts to the decision making process. We would see emotionally intelligent decision making, a win-win mindset, tasks being understood within the context of relationship and success being measured as the flourishing of a whole life which places family and work on equal terms.”

What’s Next for the Downing Street Project?

In addition to the lack of women in political and public life, Chalmers also believes that we have recently seen several examples of politicians behaving in isolation, and not being open to new ideas or aware of the external perspectives or point of view. She cites British politics’ recent expenses scandal, in which the publication of MPs’ over-inflated expenses claims made headlines and caused a public outcry.

The next General Election is likely to occur in May 2010, so what plans do the Downing Street Project team have for the campaign? Chalmers is taking a more holistic view of what is needed, and believes that the British model needs to differ from the White House Project’s strategy, which has focussed since 1998, with some success, on preparing women for political and public life.

“Over the last year, and through working with the main British political parties, with individual MPs, with women in business and with hundreds of interested volunteers, an understanding has emerged that this is not just about training women to be MPs and that this may not be the most helpful intervention. For women who don’t know where to start in politics but are interested, a one day training event could be useful. However, for women who already have that knowledge and awareness, they then move into the British political machine – and it’s at that point that we hit the situation that we currently face. The parties have their own training programmes for women, so we believe that the issue isn’t necessarily about training the women but about changing the concept of what it means to be an MP. When you consider that the House of Commons has a firing range but no crèche, it’s very clear that it, as an institution, is not really set up for people with children.”

Currently, the political parties have their eyes firmly fixed on the prize of winning in May and succeeding within the British “first past the post” electoral model. Chalmers is observing current political developments with a keen gaze, and fears that the proportion of female MPs may fall even further in the event of a change of Government. “Many of the female MPs are Labour and, if only a few of them lose their seats due to a political swing, then there’ll be a big statistical drop. Even now, there’s not enough women in the House to form a critical mass of around 30%, so a shift downwards can only take us away from a more balanced House of Commons.”

However, on the positive side, Chalmers is hopeful that the recently published “Speaker’s Conference Recommendations”, which contains over 60 suggestions to improve the numbers of women and black/ethnic minority candidates, may be partially or fully implemented; the DSP is keen to continue to work with various political groups to support a new level of change.

“The first year of the new Government will be crucial and we aim to establish a strong relationship and work with them to advance the agenda of balanced leadership.”

Watch this space.