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Cranfield School of Management is looking for firms to open their boardrooms for academic examination to help researchers determine whether the infamous old boys network really does prevent women from taking the top jobs in science, engineering and technology (SET) industries.

Researchers want to add to a growing body of research that suggests a tribal masculine culture keeps women out of boardrooms unless they can pretend to be one of the boys.

Professor Susan Vinnecombe OBE, advisor on the project, said there were plenty of women making it into middle management jobs, but a masculine culture was keeping them out of boardrooms.

Vinnecombe cited research by Catalyst, a firm that examines the place of women in the workplace, that found CEOs thought there weren't more women in their boardrooms because they hadn't been around long enough and didn't have enough management experience.

Women, on the other hand, felt board positions were reserved for male stereotypes. It was a tribal thing - if you weren't one of the boys, you weren't getting on the board.

The debate was heated up last year when Harvard president Lawrence Summers speculated in a controversial speech on why there weren't more women in top SET jobs.

He said women were too distracted by their home lives to match the total dedication given by men to their senior positions.

"The relatively few women who are in the highest ranking places are disproportionately either unmarried or without children," he said.

The law profession is usually held up as a shining example of how a masculine world can be transformed into one amenable to women - this reference was used by Summers last year and again by Vinnecombe today.

Yet even in law, women are being kept out of boardrooms because of stereotyped ideas of what sort of skills are required to fill top jobs.

Law firm executives think men are "decisive and aggressive" and women are "indecisive and gentle", and this prejudiced them against hiring women for top jobs, found a study of the hiring practices among 700 US law firms in the 1990s, published last summer.

39 per cent of law associates were women, but only 13 per cent of partners, found the study, Gender Stereotypes, Same-Gender Preferences, and Organizational Variation in the Hiring of Women: Evidence from Law Firms, by Elizabeth Gorman, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

According to the Cranfield Female FTSE study, women fill only 10.5 per cent of positions in Britain's top 100 boardrooms. Only 3.4 per cent of executive positions are filled by women.

Vinnecombe said one FTSE 100 firm in the study had discovered that the qualities it was asking for in executive job adverts were all masculine. It dumped words that described a decisive and aggressive culture and found they started finding more top jobs for women and more women for top jobs.®

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