Without demonstrating or proving the real benefits of having women in leadership roles, we are producing statistics rather than progress. In March 2016, Management Today published an article, Which FTSE boards have female directors?, There is, of course, a simple and straightforward response: 20. But corporate responses to issues of diversity, gender included, are rarely simple and straightforward, and rightly so.
Yet evidence does exist. A 2007 Catalyst report examined Fortune 500 companies, looking at three performance factors. Analysis showed that companies with the highest female board representation outperformed those with the lowest by 53% in terms of return on equity, 42% in return on sales and 66% in return on invested capital.
More recently, The Hay Group’s 2012 research project, Managing in Matrix Organizations, reviewed data from the Group’s Emotional and Social Competency Inventory behavioural database (which includes information on the emotional intelligence of more than 17,000 individuals). It found that leadership traits that are consistently tied to successful business outcomes in matrixed organisations were more prevalent in executive-level women in general management roles than among their male peers. Compare the prevalence by gender of the following traits:
- Empathy: 33% of women, 15% of men
- Conflict Management: 51% of women, 29% of men
- Influence: 32% of women, 21% of men.
- Self-awareness: 19% of women, 4% of men
While progress in representation has been made, it’s instructive to look at how it has been made and where. While Cranfield School of Management’s monitoring showed an additional 103 woman directors in 2014-15, all but three of these women held non-executive directorships. Despite the evidence that is available to the contrary, it seems organisations are highly reluctant to entrust women leaders in relation to decision making that can directly impact the performance of the business and the bottom line: the bias may be unconscious, but the evidence is highly visible.
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus 2.0?
There also still appears to be a lack of understanding or value for the differences between men and women. Despite the time and resources that we invest into diversity and inclusivity training, it seems organisations still struggle to understand that it is diversity and difference that makes us stronger and more competitive. It is not just a comparative lack of women that is denying organisations a possible competitive and performance advantage, it’s also the foregoing of the behavioural traits that they typically bring.
The McKinsey report, Women Matter 2: Female leadership, a competitive edge for the future , identified a number of behaviours that are critical in helping organisations to meet future global challenges. Of the four most critical behaviours, three are more often demonstrated by women.
Women’s leadership behaviours include a greater focus on people development, inspiration, participative decision making, role modelling and expectations and rewards: these are behaviours that have a positive impact on the majority of McKinsey’s categories for measuring organisational performance: direction, accountability, innovation, leadership teams, motivation, work environment and values, and capabilities. The greatest contribution of male behaviours, by comparison, is in correlation and control and external orientation; leadership behaviours which are increasingly seen to be outdated and even detrimental to employee engagement and productivity. If there is a leadership behaviour gap in many organisations today, this analysis suggests that is the behaviours most associated with women’s leadership behaviours that are lacking.
The benefits of women leaders in organisations are real, not hypothetical. Furthermore, available research suggests that the future shape – and needs – of organisations will only make these benefits even more valuable. Helping women in leadership is not simply a diversity issue, nor is it feminist one: the issue is ultimately one of performance, competitive advantage and organisational growth.
We need to banish the misconceptions and the unconscious bias that still very much exist, and encourage considerably more research in this area to better inform diversity and inclusion training. And we need to take a combination of organisation-wide, top down and bottom up approaches to shifting cultural beliefs about the true value of women leaders through:
- Understanding the present situation (organisation wide – bottom up and top down)
- Bringing leaders together to coordinate efforts that develop women leaders (top down)
- Implementing better informed and more effective organisation-wide diversity and inclusion training (bottom up)
- Thoughtfully designing and implementing programmes, initiatives and resources to help key stakeholders recruit, promote and retain competent women leaders (organisation wide – bottom up and top down)
‘We do not see things the way that they are, we see things the way that we are’
Research conducted by Natalia Karelaia of INSEAD and Laura Guillén of the European School of Management and Technology, and published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, suggests that organisations that commit to developing and retaining female talent should consider not only interpersonal attitudes toward female leaders, but also intrapersonal processes related to women leaders’ self-perception.
Whilst organisations should undoubtedly be active in supporting and empowering women to lead, women should also be encouraged to empower themselves by developing a positive self-perception in relation to their gender. While some of the factors that underpin the Paula Principle (the tendency of woman not to fulfil their professional potential) may require pragmatic solutions, and unconscious bias remains the unseen ‘elephant in the room’, the adage that ‘perception is reality’ is more than just a cliché. It is not only men’s view of women that needs to change.
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