How Promoting Female Leaders Can Grow Your Business

women in leadership

Do you need to be a man to be a good leader? Not based on this quote from Roland Emerson: “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”

If that is what people look for in a leader (and largely it seems to be), then it’s clear that gender needn’t play a role in dictating who makes a good leader. Besides, if Groucho Marx’s view is anything to go by, women are already leaders, they just don’t always know it.

Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men – the other 999 follow women.

But while the majority of people may truly believe and explicitly state that women can and do make great leaders, there remains an on-going resistance when it comes to making this a widespread reality. Women continue to find it difficult to progress and achieve high ranking roles within businesses, and despite the issue being a key area of focus in recent years, little has changed.

According to research some of the key areas that seem to be impacting women’s progression include a pervasive belief that men make better business leaders; the impact of the existing status quo which is also playing into women’s confidence in their ability and their aspirations; the challenge of the ‘double burden’ for women looking to raise a family while still being able to progress; and finally a continued lack of support in many cases, when it comes to promoting women in leadership.

These are all issues that can and should be addressed, but at present the focus seems to be on managing the symptoms of the problem, rather than the systemic cause. A great deal of attention has been focussed on why there are so few women in really senior positions within the FTSE100 and FTSE250, and while this is an important discussion to be had, this approach may be leaping too far ahead. It is of course vital that women who deserve these roles are supported in achieving them (and there are plenty out there who do), and similarly it is vital that women seeking to achieve these high ranking positions have role models to aspire to and emulate.

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However the issue isn’t just that women aren’t making it to board level C-Suite positions; it’s more pervading than that, and in order to really redress the imbalance we see at the very top, change needs to start from the bottom. The fact is that achieving gender balance in top level positions within these companies is highly unlikely simply because there are so few women in these companies at all. Of the FTSE100 some of the top industries include banking which has a workforce where approximately 34% are women; oil and gas with just 23% women; energy with just 12.8% and engineering, where only 9% of the workforce is female.

It’s therefore an issue that needs to be addressed at every level. Until this happens organisations within these industries (and many more) will naturally struggle to achieve the 25% target for boards that has been suggested, simply due to the fact there is such a small talent pool to work with. In order to truly make a change and reach the goal of gender balance, efforts need to be made to tackle the underlying issues such as imbalance in education, existing perceptions and prejudice about women in certain industries and the issue of motherhood and work.  Evidently this is not a problem that will be solved overnight, in fact, according to recent projections, at the current rate of change it will take at least 70 years for boardrooms to achieve full gender balance, clearly demonstrating that much more needs to be done to help make gender imbalance a thing of the past.

Companies with a higher number of women on their boards outperformed those with fewer women

But how can we promote and encourage change? Typically two of the things required to spur on and motivate change are being able to demonstrate the benefits of the new idea, and being able to demonstrate that the change is possible and doesn’t have to be difficult. Fortunately, when it comes to the issue of women in leadership, there is evidence to support both of these elements.

Celebrating the benefits of women in leadership

Diversity, no matter what form it takes, is well documented to positively impact the bottom line of a business.

Organisations that are fully inclusive and encourage diversity in their workforces will see more innovative ideas being produced, higher levels of creativity and knowledge sharing, and ultimately a boost to their bottom line. From a women-in-leadership perspective there are numerous studies citing the benefits of hiring women, especially in high ranking positions.

Research from Catalyst found that in their 2011 survey companies with a higher number of women on their boards outperformed those with fewer women by 16% on Return on Sales and 26% for Return on Invested Capital. Overall businesses with more women board members had significantly higher rates of Return on Equity, Return on Sales and Return on Invested Capital than their competitors who had very few or no women board members.

Of course due to being a correlation, it cannot be conclusively proved that having women on the board was the driving force behind this high performance, but other research conducted by McKinsey and Government agencies have identified similar outcomes, suggesting a strong link between female leadership and high performance. However simply appointing a woman to a board level role will not necessarily mean higher revenue and performance.

There is no doubt that gender equality in leadership roles is nowhere near where it should be

The important caveat is that companies need to hire based on skill and ability, and focus on getting the right fit. Without this then no matter whom you hire, male or female, the performance of a business won’t improve. The key point is that women should be more openly considered for these roles if they fit the criteria, and where appropriate effort should be made to identify and appoint women who are suitable, as the link between having women present on boards and higher organisational performance cannot be denied. It therefore makes good business sense to invest in actively promoting women up the ranks of a business and encouraging their involvement at board level.

Celebrating the countries getting it right

There is no doubt that gender equality in leadership roles is nowhere near where it should be, either in the UK or anywhere else globally. However some nations have made bigger strides towards the long term goal than others, and unfortunately the UK continues to lag behind.

celebrating women in leadership

In terms of board level positions the Nordic countries are currently leading the way with over 40% of the board positions being filled by women in Norway. This has been a drastic leap from the 6.2% that were in such roles in 2002, and can largely be attributed to formal legislation introduced mandating larger companies to achieve this quota. Few countries are anywhere close to achieving this level elsewhere.

However while there may be some on-going difficulty in reaching targets at board level, there are countries that are leading the way in terms of management, senior management and executive levels, and in many ways this is the more important area to focus on, as this is where the talent pipeline can be more effectively constructed.

Despite their economic power, it is still not the European countries or the US that are leading the way in this regard, in fact the country with the highest proportion of women in senior management roles is Russia at 43%, in conjunction with Brazil, India, China and South Africa, who all have at least 30% of senior leadership roles occupied by women.

This is a huge leap from the UK national average of 24%, and these results were achieved without the need for mandates or legislation, helping to demonstrate that change can occur organically and can be more powerful when it does.

Of course nowhere globally has yet achieved the ultimate goal of a 50:50 split between men and women in leadership, but the steps that have been made show that changes can happen, and when they do everyone benefits.

Celebrating the women who are leading the change

It’s an unfortunate truth that the numbers of women in leadership are still not where they should be, and there are many factors that contribute to this; there’s much more that businesses, the government and education systems can do to improve the situation. There is a lot individuals can do to influence their career journey, and throughout history women have been fighting against the status quo to change the fate of their gender and demonstrate that with the right attitude and a fair amount of grit and determination, women can reach these levels of power. 

It’s about inspiring other people to be their best and push for change

Individuals such as Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to be a democratically elected leader of a Muslim nation; Ann E. Dunwoody, the first woman to achieve Four Star Officer Rank in the US Military; and Alison Cooper, CEO of Imperial Tobacco, all show that being a woman is not a barrier to career success.

These women succeeded because they not only had the skills and knowledge needed at the time, but because they had the drive and determination to see it through.

It is true that there are far fewer women in senior leadership roles, but the ones who have achieved these positions are no different from their male counterparts – they saw what they wanted and fought to make it happen. The truth is that these women aren’t extraordinary leaders because or in spite of being female; they are inspirational leaders because of who they are: women who had the conviction and motivation to fight for their futures and make great things happen for themselves.

It’s also important to remember that leadership comprises many forms – political, military, medical, activists; leadership isn’t just about being a CEO in a FTSE 100 company, it’s about inspiring other people to be their best and push for change, and there are countless examples of women who achieved just that.

Enhance Magazine

This article was featured in Issue 11 of Enhance Magazine

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