12 questions to:

Anna Golec, PhD, CFA

A woman who builds bridges between the worlds of science and business, who does not give in to stereotypes in her thinking, but rather points them out, and who combines work in Poland and in Sweden. I would like to invite you to a fascinating conversation with Anna Golec, PhD, CFA, who will reveal some secrets about the world of academic research and in a simple way explain such important concepts as the critical mass theory and marzipan layer in relation to the participation of women on boards. The cherry on the top are the great analogies between chess and life!

Ania, you have played chess from a very young age. Tell us, what does a child learn while playing chess? Can the knowledge and thinking gained be applied in the adult life?

My adventure with chess began quite early, at preschool age, thanks to my grandfather, who probably thought that it would be an interesting way to spend time and an obvious opportunity to develop analytical and planning skills. However, my most important lesson from that time was… confronting with failure, and in fact quite regularly! A five year old’s chances are slim compared to an adult, and there were no head starts given.

Chess is an individual game with no space for coincidence, all the moves are the result of the player’s choices and all responsibility for failure falls on him/her. If you lose, it means that you made too many mistakes and your opponent was better. Realizing this is not pleasant at all. It evokes a lot of negative emotions, which you need to be able to re-work constructively, analyse what you can do better, so that next time you can get to a higher level.

And analogies with life? I see many, both positive and negative ones. Sometimes, something that looks like an opportunity, such as capturing an important figure, is actually a trap. So you can’t limit yourself to analysing the consequences of one move, but you have to look at consequences in the longer term. I think this is very important in life.

From the beginning I was also surprised by the hierarchy imposed in chess – the most important figure is not the agile and versatile queen, but the slow and not very helpful king, whom everyone else must protect. The figures are put into battle and each one is obliged to sacrifice itself if it leads to victory. The king stands aside and is only supposed to survive. Why can’t the queen be the most important figure? Why can’t the king be replaced? Just because! Because someone once defined the rules in this way. Sad, but sometimes very life-like… The extremely beautiful thing is that even an inconspicuous pawn, if it survives the initial games on the chessboard and persistently moves forward, can become a figure that changes the outcome of the game.

You attended computer science class and took part in mathematics contests. Research shows that in many countries there are no statistically significant gender differences in math scores, i.e. girls are just as good at math as boys. So why are there fewer girls studying computer science?

This question prompted me to have a look at the results of secondary school exams at the extended level from the last 4 years in Poland and it turns out that contrary to the stereotypical thinking, female graduates do better in math, computer science, while male graduates do better in biology or chemistry. Only in physics women win one year and men the next, but the achievements are more or less equal. So it is not true that girls have no aptitude for science. Recently, more and more women are choosing technical studies, but they are still a minority. The question about the reasons for this situation is rather the domain of psychologists and sociologists, so I can only speak about my subjective feelings, which do not have to be representative.

The choice of studies or profession is a result of many factors: not only the aptitude and self-confidence, but also what makes someone happy and how someone imagines work in that profession looks like. I had the comfort of choosing any high school I wanted, but I was convinced that computer science was not only IT but also “it”. I liked computers and programming, I was pretty good at it and I wanted to learn more about it. On my first day at the new school when I looked around the classroom, I was quite surprised to see that I was one of four girls and there were 32 boys around us. It was a men’s world filled with male „sensitivity”, where I needed to prove that I can read the school plan correctly and I didn’t get lost looking for my classroom… I should have expected it, but somehow I didn’t think about it before. It also turned out that while it’s fun to sit in front of a computer from time to time, write a simple program and earn some extra pocket money, spending hours in front of a computer screen with little social interaction was not an attractive option for me for many upcoming years of work.

So I thought: physics! Something absolutely fascinating, but the job prospects for physicists did not look too rosy at the time, so that also influenced my decision. In the end I chose finance. Finally, there is the question of self-confidence. Many of my talented female colleagues wondered whether they were good enough, whether they would be able to carry through the demanding technical studies. Needlessly.

One of the areas you thrive in is science. You are a lecturer – you teach classes in a broad area of economics – do you notice differences in how men and women approach studying economics? Can one generalise or are there statistics available?

I work with students in finance and management on a daily basis. It is difficult for me to clearly assign behavioural patterns to a particular gender. My observations are that in Sopot, where I teach, women dominate in terms of numbers. When comparing average scores by gender, I see a slight predominance of female students. The period of pandemics and the use of various distance learning tools has given me the opportunity to observe differences in work styles and activities that are not normally visible. My observations are that the women worked more systematically. Interestingly, in Sweden, where I also teach, the situation is exactly the opposite. Of course you need to remember that my observations concern only a few subjects and in a narrow group, so they cannot be generalised.

Please give us a sneak peek into how much time lecturers spend teaching, how much time they devote for preparation for classes, and how much time is left for academic work, including writing scientific papers?

And here the answer is: it depends. First of all, it depends on the position held and the duties assigned to it. The job of a lecturer is to teach, and this fills most of his/her duties. In the case of researchers, scientific work will be the main area of activity. However, the most numerous group are the „hybrids” – research&teaching academics who divide their time between teaching and conducting research. The second important element is the position held: the number of hours taught by a professor is lower than that of an assistant professor or assistant. Some persons teach many subjects, so they have a lot of work to do to prepare their classes; others teach only one subject, but in multiple groups (try telling the same anecdote three times in a row on the same day). So much for theory.

In practice, a lot depends on the subject. Some courses are not subject to major changes (e.g. mathematics) and materials once created will serve for many years, while others require constant monitoring of the current situation, because the regulations have just been amended, e.g. the Act on Public Offering or a new reporting standard is issued.

The level of individual involvement of the lecturer also plays a big role in all of this. You can develop a presentation based on selected textbook, go „do” your hours, refer to the end-of-chapter control questions in the book and tell students to pick up something there. At the end of the semester, you can look for a multiple choice test from previous years in your drawer and that’s it. But you can also spend time updating your knowledge, e.g. attend seminars and conferences, and then modify your lectures accordingly. You can spend long hours reviewing new textbooks, preparing teaching materials, self-study assignments and new exam questions and sit in on weekends for time consuming  oral exams. And if you want to approach the teaching duties fairly, there is unfortunately little time left for other academic work. For this you need a “fresh head” and a longer period of focus, it is not something that can be done casually as the so-called „in-between”. At least I cannot do it this way.

We worked on the report „Women on Boards and Company Performance” and I must say that it was a pleasure to work with you! Together with other persons involved in the report, we set ourselves a goal to write it in accessible language – both the part describing women’s participation and the econometric research. From the very positive feedback after the report, I think we have achieved our goal. Tell us why scientific publications cannot be written in plain language? Does scientific knowledge reach business and society?

There is this stereotypical belief that if something looks or sounds complicated, it must definitely be smart. I think that most conclusions from social science research can be presented in a simple way. Let’s use here a well-known quotation from Einstein: „If you can’t explain something in a simple way – it means that you don’t understand it enough”.

It is easy to say, it is more difficult to publish – and points for publications in the current evaluation system determine the success of the researcher and the university he/she represents. This is what is required and what we are expected to deliver. No wonder that a natural reaction will be to try to fit into the criteria of scientific journals, surrounded by the nimbus of elitism, addressed to a narrow circle of other researchers dealing with a selected topic. This, of course, requires adherence to certain rigid rules, e.g. concerning the structure, language, or ways of data presentation. A scientific article has a classical structure: it is necessary to outline the context, properly place the problem in the theory, review the literature, present hypotheses and methods for their verification, show results and conclusions of the research, and finally indicate the limitations of the applied approach. This is important, because without these steps, it would be difficult to assess the reliability of the research, and any shortcuts give room to various pseudo-scientific theories. There is a lot of work involved in collecting and processing data, which is not visible and seems to go on forever, as you have already seen by yourself while co-writing the report.

The problem is that this scientific approach misses the expectations of business. For this audience, the theory is boring, and the description of methods is an incomprehensible gibberish with many strange formulas and Greek letters. What is interesting is the summary and whether they will find information on how their business can benefit from this knowledge. I fully understand it, knowing the time constraints of executives. Unfortunately, this difference in goals and expectations puts these two worlds further apart instead of getting closer together. The situation looks a bit different in Sweden, where strictly scientific publications are valued, but a lot of emphasis is placed on cooperation with local community and business, on being „useful” and not practicing “haute-couture science” for its own sake.

Our research showed that for 140 companies that were part of the WIG20, mWIG40 and sWIG80 indices at the end of 2019, for a decade, 30% threshold of women on boards (understood as management plus supervisory board) was a barrier. Why is this 30% threshold so important?

We rely here on a number of studies from a wide area of social sciences. It should be noted that 30% is a conventional limit of the so-called „critical mass” at which the voice of the minority can be adequately articulated. Research is not entirely consistent on this point, and tends to indicate a certain range – between 25 and 40%. Research gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s with the publications of R.M. Kanter and D. Dahlerup, but there are also publications from the 1940s. The general conclusions are that in groups where minority constituted less than 15% a number of problems were observed. A representative of a minority, even if he or she meets all the formal criteria for group membership, e.g. has the appropriate qualifications, may still be subject to exclusion from full membership in the group because he or she does not fit into a number of informal criteria. Moreover, such a person has to deal with the tendency to constantly emphasize his or her distinguishing features, and the consequences of this can be various. There may be pressure to deny stereotypical perceptions by other group members and to prove that one deserves to be where one is. The other pole is exaggerated adaptation to the behaviour and opinions of the majority in order to be „accepted into the herd.” If minority representation reaches a critical mass, it ceases to be a „piece of decoration” designed to give the appearance of diversity, or what in scientific jargon is called a „token,” and gains the opportunity to exert real influence.

We also wrote the report to encourage others to do further research on broad issues related to diversity. Please mark the areas that would be worth exploring?

As a storytelling expert, I think you’ll agree with me that numbers are important, but they can’t tell the whole story. Besides, no study, not even the most comprehensive one, manages to examine everything – it always analyses only a small part of a more complex reality. The answer to one question triggers another. The results of our analysis indicated that the group of companies with higher share of women on their boards recorded statistically significant higher net margin and lower risk, understood as standard deviation of daily price change. Now it would be interesting to answer the question whether the same relations can be observed for a wider group of companies and in other periods. Is what we observed a rule or an exception? The challenge is also to try to explain the causes – here it is certainly necessary to use qualitative methods. Applying observation methods seems unrealistic (can you imagine a psychologist discreetly observing a supervisory board meeting?) but I think individual interviews could contribute a lot. Also survey research would be useful, in order to assess the scale of occurrence and perception of certain phenomena, if possible, in the widest possible group of respondents. In my opinion it is also worth looking at the so-called „marzipan layer”, i.e. the highly qualified personnel located in the hierarchy just below the C-level (top). If there is a cluster of one gender there, and the top is dominated by the other, this may be a way to identify the „glass ceiling”.

The promotion of the above mentioned report was an opportunity for many discussions with the audience regarding diversity and low participation of women on boards. Among the comments from the „opposition” there were two prevailing: i) „women do not want to hold senior positions” and ii) „we choose competence, not gender”. Let’s dispel these stereotypes.

It would be lovely to dispel stereotypes once and for all, but let’s be realistic, it’s going to be a rather incremental and lengthy process.

So let’s address the first myth: „women don’t want to”. I don’t really understand what is the basis for this statement. Has anyone ever conducted a representative survey among qualified ladies? I haven’t heard of such research. Let’s go a step further, assuming that the right candidate actually receives an offer for a high position and says „no”, then maybe it is worth looking into the reasons for her refusal. Maybe she doesn’t want to because she doesn’t like the role of an extra and a wide responsibility is not followed by adequate authority, understood as the ability to make independent decisions and take actions. Maybe she doesn’t want to because she is offered a lower salary than a colleague in the same position. Maybe she doesn’t want to because she feels that officially yes, she can enter the competition, but in fact her chances are slim and her candidature is not welcome at all.

And when it comes to competencies… In most sectors, there really is no shortage of highly qualified ladies on the market, ones who have got the education, experience, credentials, fresh perspective, and all the aptitude for both leadership and teamwork roles. It seems logical that companies should not only care but fight for such talents. Since they are not on boards, it may be worth rethinking the reason behind such situation. Maybe the work conditions offered are not attractive enough to attract such potential from the market or the recruitment process is narrowed down to those who most actively promote their candidacy.

Anyone who has seen the movie „Shrek” will remember the scene where the main character is looking for a companion for his expedition, and the donkey jumps and yells „Pick me!”. From a comedic perspective, it was  great, but in business it’s not about having fun or good time in a nice company, it’s about efficiency. If we take a rational look from efficiency perspective, it was not an optimal choice; Shrek should have chosen someone with more useful skills increasing chances for success, standing quietly in the second row. I hope that the 30% Club initiative, which is about to be launched on our market  very soon, will allow us to break at least some of the stereotypes and show how much knowledge and skills potential has remained untapped so far.

You have a PhD in economics and your dissertation was on corporate governance. Thank you very much for your substantive contribution to a comprehensive survey on corporate governance in Poland, which I conducted on behalf of the CFA Society Poland in September 2020. Tell us how to research such an intangible issue as corporate governance and what conclusions can be drawn from your research?

A long time ago 😊 when I started working on my PhD, I was full of optimism and believed that the „quality” of corporate governance can be measured quite easily and precisely. After all, there are best practices, companies are communicating with the market in this regard, so it is enough to combine these with financial results and see if any correlations can be identified. I assumed that companies which declared compliance with best practices should achieve better results. To my disappointment it turned out that correlations are very low and one cannot speak of a simple, linear dependence. In the case of many indicators we could observe a U-shape, which indicated the existence of a kind of „honesty premium” for companies openly declaring that they are not interested in any good or not-so-good practices whatsoever. The comparison of financial results of companies declaring the highest and lowest compliance with best practices more often indicated an advantage of the former.

As I delved further into the topic, over time I became aware of further difficulties in measuring corporate governance. For all intents and purposes, there isn’t even a single, universally accepted definition of corporate governance and what falls under it and what doesn’t. So, first: it’s not really clear what to measure. Second: how to measure? At one time, commercial corporate governance ratings were quite popular, but it soon turned out that the same company, was doing great according to one rating and disastrously bad according to another. Other problems are: complementarity or substitutability of some mechanisms, differences in regulations and cultural dimensions between regions. The number of aspects that need to be taken into account is enormous, so for now this topic must wait until I get academically „mature” to confront it again.

In addition to your position at the University of Gdansk, you also hold a position at University West in Sweden. Available statistics show that in Poland the share of women at lower levels of academic career is significantly higher than at the highest ones – professorships. Is it possible to draw a parallel in relation to company authorities? How does it look like in Sweden?

If you look at the gender structure of newly hired employees, I get the impression that the proportions are fairly even. However, men more often leave the academic path. I think that a large role here can be attributed to stereotypes: work at a university means stability, a lot of flexibility and no classes with students during school holidays – ideal conditions for someone who wants to devote more time to family – usually it is a mother. However, for someone with the burden of providing for a family, the low salary is a serious constraint. My department is dominated by ladies at a ratio of 9:4 and the leadership position is held by a woman. In the department, if you look at the gender of department heads, the ratio is fairly even 4:6 in favour of the men, but it is only recent. The year before it was 2:8. As far as Sweden is concerned, we have a ratio of 3:7 in the department. Across the university, I will admit that I do not know the exact statistics, but my impression is that the Faculty of Economics and IT and Technical Sciences is dominated by gentlemen, while Health Sciences and Social Sciences is dominated by ladies.

Although it has been a while since I graduated, I remember how impressed I was by the staff of SGH (Warsaw School of Economics) who were practitioners. They shared practical aspects about their profession rather than book knowledge. You are also such a lecturer for your students – you combine academic work in two countries with business. Is this a common situation in Poland and Sweden?

Of course: it depends. I work among finance and management professionals, i.e. people who could easily find a good job on the financial market. In other fields of knowledge the situation may be different. In Poland, the typical academic career path is to stay at the university directly after graduation, although as my example shows, it does not have to be this way. For a large part of my colleagues, combining work at the university with the market practice is a necessity dictated by the academic salary level. It has its advantages, because apart from theoretical knowledge we can provide practical perspective and examples of application of knowledge, but it means working more than one full time equivalent.

In Sweden, the working conditions and earnings are at a different level and the tax system rather discourages to take on additional employment. This does not mean, however, that my Swedish colleagues have only theoretical knowledge – on the contrary – many of them went to university having in their CVs a successful career on financial markets. The principle is simple: not everything at once. That system is much more flexible and open – universities are more willing to engage practitioners, and business is more willing to accept people from the world of science. Knowledge circulates, and the worlds of science and business interact.

Do you think of yourself more as an academic or as a practitioner?

I think that such a division means falling again into the trap of stereotypes, classifications and divisions. We are surrounded by the talk about the need for closer cooperation between business and science, but the reality is that we have two parallel worlds, functioning independently of each other, using different languages, principles and values. When I talk to representatives of business, I am most often perceived as a scientist, because after all, I „sit on books.” Even our conversation has turned more towards the academic world rather than what I do in business. In the academic environment I am not a „real” scientist either, because instead of preparing another publication, I spend my time on some non-scientific reports, which „give no points and do not count for anything”.

Moreover, each of these worlds seems to expect a „declaration of exclusive rights.” The same is true in other spheres: you can have either a career or a successful family life, be either pretty or smart, or have talent for maths or arts and humanities. My question is: why should I be „either-or”?  I want to be „and” because both types of activities give me joy and satisfaction. They allow me to use my skills, take up new challenges, develop myself and avoid routine which often leads to professional burnout. In my opinion they complement each other perfectly. And here a big thank you to my mentors: last year’s – Izabela Olszewska and this year’s: Noorhan Al-Zan, co-authors of the report: Aleksandra Włodarczyk, Iweta Opolska and you, Milena, and many other people who helped me discover this.

Women are also more often perfectionists and this may be an additional obstacle in speaking out to a wider audience. It triggers a vicious circle – I do not make a public appearance because I get jitters, and I do get jitters because I have too little experience in public speaking. You have to break this gridlock by taking it easy on yourself: okay, now I will go out and speak, I know it may not be perfect, but the second time I will do better.

Ania, thank you so much for your great answers, time and inspiration!

I also thank you so much for the interesting questions and the opportunity to speak.

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