Gender and Leadership

Published: 6 February 2012

Many a media story has focussed on the fact that only 17% of attendees at this year’s Davos World Economic Forum were women.  This is hardly a statistic to inspire hope in the hearts of those who strive for greater gender diversity in leadership.  However, whilst a significant journey still remains, perhaps looking toward female representation on boards as the zenith of progress deflects the focus on what could be done at other levels in the workplace?

Ethics in the boardroom are taking centre stage in global leadership debates.  The ongoing Murdoch saga has brought many questions to the fore about diversity and a board’s subsequent ability to ask hard questions and challenge itself.  Current thinking has been hard hitting, with 2011’s Davies report raising the question of imposing quotas by 2015. 

In January this year, the 30% club reported that the figure of women on FTSE boards had risen from 12.5% to 15%.  This is of course a move in the right direction.  However, the speed of travel shouldn’t be overstated.  Stephen Alambritis, a Commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, recently claimed that it would be 73 years before women are equally represented on the Boards of FTSE 100 companies.  Clearly, a lot of work remains to be done. 

As headhunters, we at Berwick Partners are serious about our role in boosting gender diversity in the work place.  Our ability to identify and embolden candidates from a range of backgrounds in their pursuit of new roles helps organisations move beyond a cultural status quo.  We also believe that this develops a through-flow of talent that will enhance diversity at Board level. 

However, our role is often made more difficult by the extent to which a diverse range of candidates rise to the level at which we recruit.  Most of the statistics demonstrate a good level of gender diversity at middle management level, however things drop off very quickly beyond that point.  Last year’s survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that 73% of female respondents felt that barriers still existed for women seeking Senior Management and Board Level positions. 

We can argue one way or another why this perception exists.  Yet, whilst cause is important, solutions are perhaps the better area to focus on.  In our experience the legal and policy dimensions to human resources and recruitment are well understood and addressed across sectors.  However, more ethereal questions of culture are perhaps less well considered.

Balancing family and professional life is often cited as the main barrier to female progression in the workplace.  Yet, the two need not be mutually exclusive. Flexible working is of course the holy grail, however, proclamations of “family friendly practices” and flexibility are all very well when written in a policy document.  The critical question is whether they are present in practice?

Presenteeism is probably the enemy of flexible working insofar as it commends those who are visible.  A truly flexible environment will be equally appreciative of those who are in the line of vision as those who aren’t.  It also demands trust.  Does management have to be hands-on to work?  How often might you expect your managers to be in view of your staff?  How much do you expect your staff to see your management for the relationship to work?

Clearly, the enablement of a flexible culture demands investment in technology and genuine integrity from all parties.  However it also requires drive.  The previously mentioned ILM survey notes that at the start of their career a lower number of women than men had a fair or clear idea of where they want to go with their career.  Conversely, a higher percentage of women saw themselves as starting their own businesses at some point in their career.  Therefore, drive is not lacking but might we consider that there is little sense of entitlement amongst women within a corporate structure? 

Disparity in pay between genders must of course underline this.  But is there a further consideration in the form of mentoring?  Self-belief is a common characteristic amongst leaders in all walks of life and judicious advice imparted upon listening ears can help transfer that skill.  Mentoring is now a commonplace policy in progressive organisations.  However the extent to which mentors are well matched to mentees seems to be a little more hit and miss. 

In a similar vein, research has demonstrated that a lack of female role models will impact upon women’s ability to identify with success.  Mckinsey’s 2007 study “Women Matter” revealed that 64% of women in the US felt that the absence of female role models was a barrier to success. 

Therefore, organisations that have few women in senior positions will potentially find it harder to create the through-flow of talent that is required.  Perhaps leaders need to recognise that the search for female role models might not remain within an organisation.  The natural extension of this is the expectation that your best female performers could move on.  The task then is to attract them back.

So in conclusion, there is no room for complacency in the pursuit of greater gender balance in senior leadership.  There is plenty of scope to consider how organisations operate on a day to day basis and indeed how actions and practices can bring policy to life.  The fact that gender in leadership is such a hot topic of debate and looks to remain that way is heartening to all those who play a role in talent development.  The trick now is to make it happen. 

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