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Women in leadership roles: are we there yet?

By Averil Leimon, Director and Leadership Psychologist, White Water Group

Why, in this day and age, do we need yet another conference targeted at and for women? Surely we are well on the road to equality and nothing’s going to stop us now?

Well, let’s check the facts. Interventions such as Lord Davies’ insistence on 25% representation on boards, Gender Pay Gap reporting, the #MeToo movement have all caused some change. At the very least, they have created awareness and a change in vocabulary. Every firm now has someone with Diversity and Inclusion in their title. Many offer a range of development opportunities for women. People say ‘it will just take time’.

At the speed that the numbers are creeping towards equality, it could take a very long time indeed. We must consistently drive change forward as effectively as possible. The case for more women at every level in organisations really doesn’t need to be stated again but just in case you have missed it, here are highlights:

  • To sustain competitive edge, you need to be fishing from the entire talent pool, retaining and growing your best people throughout the organisation. It is careless to squander resources. Women decide to leave if they perceive there is no career future for someone like them. At best, women go set up their own businesses, at worst they go to your competitors. They don’t stay home.
  • Most studies demonstrate a strong positive correlation between a high female participation in the management team and financial performance, better innovation, team relationships and corporate governance.
  • Women bring different thinking and behavioural styles, which lead to a freshness and innovation. Homogeneity leads to narrow thinking and lack of creativity.
  • Customers are women. They make or are hugely influential on most household decisions. Increasingly female consumers are becoming suspicious if organisations do not reflect their views or needs.

In our in-depth research, 10 years ago, with the London School of Economics, we asked successful senior women what it took to get ahead in their careers. We then canvassed a range of women at various ages and stages of their careers. They were very honest and the results appeared in our book Coaching Women to Lead. Since then we have added more insights through our work with companies as far-ranging as Oil & Gas, Law, Financial Services, Film and even the BBC. We have coached women and run women’s leadership programmes in all market sectors and in a range of different countries.

Here are a few key issues for women: Confidence - Many women claim Imposter Syndrome. Despite evidence of their success, a need for perfection can inhibit the growth of sound confidence. A woman can be confident to the point of arrogance on topics where she is the expert. The need to get it right may stop her voicing an opinion at other times, where men might be prepared to take a punt and are less daunted by getting it wrong.

Finding a Leadership Voice – Women are often more hesitant about speaking out in meetings or on stage, depriving themselves of opportunities to make an impact and showcase their strengths. Their voices can be drowned out in noisy debates and as a consequence they can be passed over for advancement

Role models and mentors – In some industries, there are very few women ahead of them with whom they can identify so many women still have very few role models to draw on. Men ask for and receive advice or support in their careers. Women are more hesitant, fearing it may make them look like they do not know what they are doing. Being strategic in their own careers - Women often find it hard to take time to network, to position, to realise what they want to be known for and make clear to others what their aspirations are for the next stage of their career.

What women need to do:

  •  Build confidence and presence and find their authentic voice so they can be seen and heard
  •  Plan their careers
  • Ask for advancement rather than waiting to be noticed for a job well done.
  • Network to extend their reputation

A few issues for Organisations: The lack of gender equality has often been tackled by putting the burden of responsibility on women. Inequality is not a woman’s problem. It is a business problem. The commercial benefits of having a diverse workforce at every level have been demonstrated very convincingly. Yet corporate culture changes very little.

When the majority of appointees are white men, the argument is that this is based on merit, when in fact it may be because although lip service is given to diversity, deep down beliefs have not changed and people still feel more comfortable appointing in their own likeness. We discovered in our research that while many men believe organisations to be ‘female friendly’,

Women see the situation differently. While some of the more toxic behaviours have become unacceptable, there are many seemingly trivial aspects that women notice and men classically do not, that perpetuate the status quo.

What businesses need to do:

  • Monitor the pipeline of female talent, understand where the leaks are and plan relevant action to stop the female brain drain. Hint - It isn’t all about babies!
  • Be transparent about gender ratios. Encourage and reward female retention
  •  Ensure talent management is fair and merit based, so that advancement doesn’t just go to those who shout loudest.

We were keen to know how much we have moved forward in the last 10 years and what remains to be accomplished. We have asked the original women from our research what the last 10 years have done for women and what else needs to be done. We have also asked millennial women for their opinions to see how generational issues have changed the picture.

Why did we settle for such slow progress? How far and how fast have we actually progressed since? What will accelerate inclusion and equality in future?

I shall be coming to the conference with some very fresh insights.

To find out more about this conference, please visit the event website - AICPA & CIMA Women’s Global Leadership Summit.