Gender equality in leadership: the key to intelligent working

Gender equality in leadership: the key to intelligent working

Half of all university graduates are women, who go on to take up to 60% of junior management positions. But this promising start in education and early-career jobs doesn’t last long. Women are still seriously under-represented in senior positions, despite the numerous studies showing that gender-balanced boards produce better financial results than male-dominated boards.

The facts on gender imbalance in leadership at work make for stark reading:

·      Globally, women hold less than a quarter of all senior roles. This has crept up by 1% in the past year, and just 6% since 2004

·      In small and medium enterprises, 21% are led by women[1]

·      Just seven FTSE 100 companies have a female CEO, and there’s just one in the top 50 – Emma Walmsley of GlaxoSmithKline

·      In fact, there are more men called David (9) who are FTSE 100 CEOs than women

·      In Ireland, just 14% of CEOs and COOs are women

The picture is better than it was, but it’s not changing fast – or fast enough. In some sectors of the economy there’s stagnation, and in others the trend is going backwards. The World Economic Forum recently predicted[2] that it will take until the year 2234 for women to achieve genuine equality of opportunity and pay parity in the workplace. Just 216 years to go, then.

So what’s going on here? Gender equality is everybody’s business – not just women’s, but men’s too. It needs addressing properly for the benefit of the workplace, of culture, and of broader society. And the current and projected future gender equality gap in the boardroom has serious consequences for the pipeline of future women leaders.

There are a number of really strong, complex, and interconnected reasons why women don’t get to or succeed in senior positions. Let’s consider three.

1. Unconscious bias. Those assessing and selecting candidates for senior and leadership positions unconsciously favour men over women. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra was shocked to find, in 1970, that just 5% of its musicians were women. When they introduced blind auditions – when those selecting performers choose on ability alone, without seeing the performer – the percentage of women doubled to 10% in the 1980 and 25% by the turn of the millennium[3]. With blind auditions unconscious bias was eliminated. By no means parity, but a five-fold increase in women.

Unconscious bias is hard to root out, and I can’t see too many organisations introducing blind interviews. But as we all suffer from it – women as well as men – it’s encouraging to see more and more organisations introducing unconscious bias training. But a tick-box training programme is not enough. Just understanding unconscious bias is not enough. Organisations need a multi-dimensional approach, which includes specific actions for recruitment shortlists and culture change. Today’s leadership needs help understanding that addressing unconscious bias is not political correctness but a highly-desirable, commercially-driven decision.

2. Many women’s confidence can be all-too-easily undermined when they return to work after having children. Despite the fact that children are the next generation of employees and leaders – and it was ever thus – society doesn’t value raising children sufficiently. It doesn’t believe that it’s possible to combine leading a board with leading a family, even though the latter can be much more challenging. Business behaves as if women can’t do what they did BC; Before Children. Companies and governments pay lip-service to equality of parental responsibility, but the workplace culture means that only a tiny proportion of new fathers take even the minimum time off required by legislation, let alone full, shared parental leave.

Too many women are still affected – afflicted – by “return to work syndrome”. Many experience a drop in confidence having been away from work for a period of time. Their bosses – their institutions – assume that they lack ambition, are inflexible, and low in self-confidence. This is an all-too frequent narrative in senior circles. It’s no surprise that data from PwC and the 30% Club shows two-thirds of women professionals end up working beneath their potential, when they return to work.

And yet, all the evidence shows that those organisations that invest in supporting women after their return to work reap dividends in multiple ways. Commercially, in terms of productivity, of course. But also in terms of loyalty in return for recognition of their continued value to their organisations. It’s hard commercial metrics such as these that have convinced Goldman Sachs, for instance, to create its programme of Returnships as a bridge to help its women leaders back to work.

3. The culture of organisations and the workplace is – and has been from the Industrial Revolution on – inherently male. Male-dominated. Structured around men and men’s priorities. This is never more acutely obvious than when mothers look to return to work. Intelligent working, compressed hours, flexible working – all these strategies pay dividends for companies that introduce them. But most don’t or won’t because they mistakenly believe that to do so is a sign of weakness and “the thin end of the wedge”. It’s as if they feel they’re doing women a favour or giving them special treatment. This is institutionalised thinking, whether from men or women.

The subtext of women looking for flexible working to balance work and family life is that they’re being difficult. The reality is, those who do choose to blend both worlds bring benefits to both, and there really doesn’t need to be a competition or hierarchy of importance of one over the other.

An analysis by PwC identified six key factors blocking the pipeline of women in leadership roles, six factors that mean businesses don’t promote skilled senior women leaders, don’t retain high-performing mid-level women, and don’t identify and address occupation-related gender segregation. The PwC report – Mending the Gender Gap – is focused on the financial services sector, but its findings are broadly applicable to other sectors. The six factors are:

·      Unintentional discrimination

·      Lack of clarity about the factors used to select future leaders

·      Fewer opportunities for advancement for women

·      Millennials’ high turnover rate

·      Women are less likely than men to stretch out of their comfort zones

·      Women’s networks lack broad support from men

None of this helps. In fact, the culture of the workplace – the fundamental culture of work – actually creates the very opposite of intelligent working. It makes it dumber and sub-optimal. Someone should show the impact of culture on the bottom line to the chief financial officer.

As a leadership development coach, I find myself working with women facing these challenges every day. I haven’t set out to specialise in helping women return to work or to navigate their careers into senior leadership roles. It’s just that this is an ever-present issue, with all its complex causes. Women – and men – need help in addressing it. And help introducing and institutionalising intelligent working.

If you're interested in finding out more, take a look at our women in leadership programme called Step Back, Stand Out. Our aim is to work with senior women leaders to address the low percentage of women in leadership positions and to change the leadership pipeline. We’ll look at the specific challenges women face in the workplace and get our delegates to understand their leadership impact. We’ll show them how to get to and thrive in the C-suite – if they want to; how to be ambitious for both ourselves and our organisations. How to make the world of work one that embraces the spirit and potential of intelligent working.




Photo by "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash

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