Gender crisis in leadership

An increasing volume of evidence from research shows that businesses prosper when they have greater gender equality. For example:

A Sodexo report finds that companies with boards made up of a third or more by women have on average 42% higher profits and 52% higher shareholder returns.

A 2012 study by the Credit Suisse Research Institute measured the share price performance of 2360 companies and found that ”it would on average have been better to invest in corporates with women on their boards than in those without“

In a report in September 2013, the Centre for Talent Innovation, New York, found that the most diverse companies are 70% more likely to capture new markets and 45% more likely to improve market share

Women make good leaders. In a 360 degree study of more than 7,000 executives, women outscored men on 12 of core 16 leadership characteristics. The more senior the role, the higher the gap. They outscored men on:

  • Taking initiative
  • Self-development
  • Demonstrating integrity and honesty
  • Driving for results
  • Developing others
  • Inspiring and motivating others
  • Building relationships
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Establishing stretch goals
  • Championing change
  • Solving problems and analyzing issues
  • Powerful communication

But not on:

  • Connecting the group to the outside world
  • Innovation
  • Technical or professional expertise
  • Strategic perspective

The scale of the differences wasn’t generally huge. But the results put the nails in the coffin of the assumption that men make better leaders than women.

So why can’t women get to the top?

The systemic biases referred to above lie behind the consistent failure to achieve gender parity in leadership roles. And being a complex systemic issue, the components are multi-faceted and constantly evolving. It’s no wonder, then that a McKinsey report found that, while “63% of companies have at least 20 different initiatives in place as part of their gender diversity programmes… in only 8% of companies do women account for more than a quarter of top jobs… Companies admit that their initiatives are not gaining traction, particularly with managers lower down the organization.”

Some of the specific problems behind this failure include:

At every stage of the leadership pipeline, men are roughly twice as likely to be promoted as are women

The problem isn’t confined to business – for example, although there is little difference in volume and quality of academic publications by men and women, women are much less likely to become professors

Women get fewer cracks at game-changing leadership roles, according to Christina Silva and Herminia Ibarra, in a 2012 blog. They explain that research by the Catalyst organization, using responses from 1600 high potentials, shows that high profile roles are the game changers that take people onto the fast track for advancement. “High potentials got ahead further and faster when they worked on highly visible projects, held mission-critical roles and took international assignments.”  Men felt their projects gave them higher visibility to the C suite and involved a higher level of risk to the company.  Men’s projects typically had twice times the budgets of women’s and three times the number of staff.

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Ibarra and her colleagues explore the barriers in greater depth, finding that: “Companies spend time, money and good intentions on efforts to produce a robust pipeline of upwardly mobile women, and then not much happens… The subtle gender bias that persists in organizations and in society disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader… The context must support a woman’s motivation to lead and also increase the likelihood that others will recognise and encourage her efforts – even when she doesn’t look or behave like the current generation of senior executives.”

This renewed emphasis on the gender agenda has led to a spate of recent studies that explore the issue. Among the conclusions of this research are that:

Women retain their ambition levels just as much as men. According to McKinsey studies, 98% of men aged 24-34 and 92% of women of the same age want to move up. In early to middle management, 83% of women still aspire to greater responsibility

Men and women do bring different styles and personality traits to leadership. When male executives describe themselves, says a Hudson Report, “they tend to attribute manly ‘typically’ masculine characteristics to themselves, while ignoring the more ‘typically’ feminine aspects… They are less caring and focus less on details [which are] comparatively stronger areas of strengths of women.”

What are the solutions? 

The solutions boil down to two fundamental and complementary approaches. First,mentoring-coffee.png it’s necessary to change the systems. Most of our expectations about how we get work done, what a “true” leader looks like etc reflect a male perspective. Indeed, the problem is worse than that, because it reflects the world-view and interests of the generation of men currently at the top of organizations. This is not just a gender issue. Gary Hamel’s excellent study of Generation F (the Facebook Generation, now entering the workforce) shows that there is a wide gulf in perceptions about the role and purpose of work, and how work should be done, between the leadership generation and young people now entering the workplace.

Secondly, ambitious and capable women need support, which can come in several practical forms, including:

Peer networks, where they can share experiences and create networks for influence (getting things done and creating their own referral network) and information (finding out about opportunities for advancement and linking into organizational politics). Many women are reluctant to take a proactive approach to network building, seeing it as artificial and manipulative. However, it is possible to be authentic and an effective networker. Understanding how networks function and focusing more on contributing to the network (rather than on how to make use of it) brings out the strengths of women leaders – and rewards them with insights, referrals and recommendations they might not otherwise have gained.

Intriguingly, there is no evidence that women-only networks are more effective than networks that involve both genders. Indeed, it may be beneficial to be active in a number of overlapping networks, some of which are female only, others not. Leaders, who network well, tend to have a portfolio of networks for different purposes. These include contacts with people at lower levels in the organization (to find out what’s really going on!), with selected gatekeepers in pivotal operational positions, with peers, with whom they need to interact frequently, and with people, often outside the organization, who challenge their thinking and introduce them to new thinking.

Social media provide a particular opportunity for women to contribute to and raise their profile within key networks. In the on-line environment, most of the subtle discouragements to speak up and take credit for ideas are absent.

Mentoring. The Catalyst study found that women were marginally more likely to receive a mentor (47% v 39%), but that having a mentor didn’t necessarily lead to advancement unless the mentor was a senior manager. This observation reflects a specifically US perspective of mentoring, which conflates the roles of mentor and sponsor, discussed below. In other cultures, particularly within Europe, the role of the mentor is to help the mentee understand the context, in which she operates – both the internal context (subtle barriers in her own perceptions and self-limitations) and the external context (how the system works); and then to assist her in planning how to establish and work towards her own plan of career advancement.

At the same time, linking senior male executives with rising female talent helps develop an awareness of their capabilities. It also provides a safe environment, where women can challenge stereotypical thinking and implicit bias, and where male leaders can allow themselves to address how they unconsciously contribute to maintaining gender inequality. The more individual male leaders, who experience increased awareness and a change of mindset, the easier it becomes to address the systemic barriers in an organisation.

Other benefits of mentoring include:

Where mentoring is designed to catch women at key transition points in their careers, it gives them greater self-confidence in their competence and potential.

Mentoring addresses how people evolve their leadership style – effective mentoring gives women permission to be themselves and develop their own, authentic style of leadership, rather than adopt more macho styles that they see at higher levels.

A review of US research found that mentoring has helped women identify and therefore address barriers to advancement and to identify and implement new strategies for success. The authors suggest that mentoring has done this by helping women better understand performance expectations, to adopt a behavioral style that men can be comfortable with, to gain access to the informal networks of their more senior mentors, to overcome stereotypes and to assess and choose which challenging assignments and projects to take on.

Sponsorship. A sponsor is someone, who takes a direct interest in and responsibility for the career advancement of someone more junior than themselves. Sponsors act as advocates for their protégés in terms of promotions and actively promote their interests. It’s an approach recommended by the US author Sylvia Ann Hewlett, but it comes with a great deal of negative baggage. In particular:

Sponsorship often comes with a price tag. Sponsors typically expect some form of reciprocity – for example, in the form of personal loyalty.  They also tend to expect their protégés to follow their advice. In extreme cases, the relationships can become manipulative and/or result in inappropriate intimacy.

Where sponsorship is obvious the successful women often spends much of her energy disproving the perception that she did not get there on her own merit (even if people don’t actually think that!).

The imbalance of power in a sponsorship relationship makes it difficult for the protégé to be authentic

Sponsors tend to provide transactional support, but not the depth of psychosocial support and stimulus to personal reflection and development that characterize a true partnership.

A more effective way of approaching sponsorship is to establish it as something that happens alongside one or more separate mentoring relationships and is focused on groups of women with leadership potential, rather than on individuals. This avoids almost all of the downsides of one-on-one sponsorship and fosters a sense of community and mutual support amongst the potential women leaders.

Another practical approach is to train some top managers in the role of “talent spotters”. Part of this training includes developing a much wider, gender-aware understanding of what talent looks like. Talent spotters fulfil many of the roles of a sponsor, but because they build relationships with a widespread group of talented men and women and are better educated into their role, once again they avoid the downsides of “naked sponsorship”. Among the roles of talent spotters are helping the talented person build networks, find mentors and individual sponsors and link into developmental resources.

Changing the system. All of this, however, will just scratch the surface of the problem unless organizations invest in changing both the internal and external systems. Changing the internal systems means helping women create and pursue strategies that are most likely to navigate successfully through the complexities of a culture dominated by male perspectives. Changing the external systems is about finding practical ways to counterbalance and change that culture. Both are challenges that require systems thinking and innovative thinking – on the part of both men and women.

Changing the internal system

We now know a lot more about the different perspectives in how men and women think. For example, there are significant differences in how each gender makes decisions, probably related to the amount of white and grey matter in typical male and female brains and the strength of connection between left and right brains. According to a recent HBR article, this difference s behind the finding that “Women see a big meeting with a potential service provider as chance to explore options in collaboration with an expert resource, while men see that event as a near-final step in the process, when they are narrowing down and choosing among options.”

Recognising the natural strengths of female leadership and how effectively they complement those of male leadership can be a big step for both genders. Almost all the leadership competency frameworks we have encountered in large corporations have been designed on the basis of observing successful male executives. we have never (yet) seen one designed on a comparable group of female executives, or one that truly reflects the leadership strengths of both genders. When mentors, sponsors, talent spotters and leaders in general acknowledge the duality of leadership mindsets (and the fact that leadership itself is highly contextual and interpreted differently in different cultures), then the internal conversations that women have with themselves can allow them to place greater value on and be more assertive about their own leadership style.

One of the most interesting approaches to harmonising male and female leadership styles is McKinsey’s centred leadership. The preconditions for any effective leader, they maintain, areintelligence, tolerance for change, desire to lead, and communication skills. To these can be added five areas of skill set, all of which the McKinsey researchers observed in highly successful female leaders:

Meaning: happiness, signature strengths, purpose

Engaging: Voice, ownership, risk-taking, adaptability

Connecting: Network design, sponsorship, reciprocity, inclusiveness

Positive framing: self-awareness, learned optimism, moving on

Managing energy: minimizing depletion, restoration, flow

Leading to Impact: (presence, resilience, belonging)

These themes are echoed in the work of Ibarra and her colleagues, who maintain that male or female, people become leaders by internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose. Effective leaders of either gender, they say, “develop a sense of purpose by pursuing goals that align with their personal values and advance the collective good.” They advocate creating “safe identity workspaces”, where women can develop their authentic leadership identity and align it with a larger purpose. Mentoring (of the European, developmental variety) is one of the most practical ways to support this. The mentoring conversation is by definition a safe place, in which the mentee can explore and challenge her own values and how these translate into beliefs, behaviours and both personal and organizational aspirations.

Changing the external system

Ibarra and her colleagues also point to “Second generation gender bias”, which they describe as:

Having too few role models for women

Gendered career paths

Lack of access to networks and sponsors

Different expectations of males and females “… men are expected to be “decisive, assertive and independent” – and these are the qualities associated with leadership — women are expected to be “nice , caretaking and unselfish”

The tendency to assign women operational roles and men strategic roles

Some of the practical ways we have observed to change the system include:

Creating forums where gender bias can be acknowledged and subject to open discussion. These forums have to engage both men and women in sharing perspectives and both acknowledging each other’s contributions and recognising the impact of their own assumptions and behaviours not in the abstract, but in practical day to day routines and decision-making. One of the most powerful of such forums is reverse mentoring, where talented women at junior and middle management levels educate C-suite males about the realities of gender bias in action.

Addressing the issue of gender career paths directly. For example, HR is largely seen as a repository for women (though most HR directors are men!). An alternative is to view HR as a function, where any ambitious and talented employee should spend a period, as an essential step on their journey to becoming a rounded leader. Monitoring the proportion of men and women, who move on from such roles into other functions, opens up the possibility of change.

Finding the fulcrums. We refer to this kind of focused attention to key career transitions and reputation-building opportunities as finding the fulcrums. For example, many organizations have loads of statistics about the proportions of men and women in each job role and at each level of the organisation. But it’s rare for that data to lead to any direct action – it’s too far away from the fulcrum. In one large, public sector organization, we identified that women had less access to the reputation-building, big, cross-functional projects. If they did become members of these project teams or working groups, it was typically as a junior member and not the leader. The solution was to require the leaders to identify each quarter the top 10 or so of these projects and their gender composition. This very specific data allowed them to act to ensure that decisions on membership didn’t just default to the “usual suspects”.

In summary

The bottom line is that addressing the issues of gender inequality in leadership is increasingly becoming a matter of the bottom line. A systemic approach to helping women overcome their internal barriers to accessing the C-suite and at the same time dismantling the systemic barriers to gender equality within the workplace is no longer a nice to have – it’s an economic necessity.