Executive Education

Women leaders should be the norm rather than the exception

By Tara O’Sullivan, Chief Creative Officer at Skillsoft
Executive Education
Published: 6 March 2018

The significant potential of women to strengthen the global economy, and to enhance the overall quality of life, is now being acknowledged worldwide. Progress indeed has been made in recent years, as far as promoting deserving and aspiring women executives in the organisations is concerned. Still, much remains to be done.

A major reason for the skewed gender representation further up the corporate ladder is that many women drop out owing to inadequate opportunities or lack of sponsorship. A combination of factors has led to an alarming situation today, where women account for only up to 25% of the C-suite in 70% of companies worldwide.

A recent McKinsey report described gender inequality as an urgent “moral and social issue”, as well as a “critical economic challenge”. The global economy “will suffer”, if women – who constitute 50% of the world’s working-age population – fail to realise their full economic potential, the report warned.

Of course, opinionated debates on this issue continue to take place regularly, as a greater number of women graduate with advanced degrees and possess the same skills and aspirations as their male peers. But what does it mean for the corporate world when only a handful of women climb the corporate ladder and reach senior executive positions?

Unfortunately, the systemic aspects underpinning this situation cannot simply be waved away. It requires sustained time and effort, something many organisations are reluctant to pursue. Done the right way, boosting gender-diversity ratios can increase the probability of an organisation outperforming its average industry competitor by 15%, in terms of financial returns.

The root causes of skewed gender representation
Unequal opportunities, lack of structured sponsorship and insufficient maternity benefits have often been cited as key factors behind the woeful under-representation of women in leadership roles.

Combined with the widely prevalent subconscious bias, this dynamic accentuates the problem of a lack of women entering the leadership pipeline. Integrated training has the potential to address this problem, but it is often forwarded to a select cluster of affinity groups of women without follow-ups or progress measurement. Programmes that fill specific leadership gaps and avoid the pitfalls of being under-funded and under-supported are rare.

Varied efforts do lead to tangible outcomes in the short term, but without organisation-wide integration they fall flat. That is because, enterprises fail to realise that removing gender bias and promoting women leadership requires effective post-session reinforcement. It is necessary to deliver these in an environmentally supportive manner that offers targeted development to evolve women’s leadership capabilities. Other factors that need to be overcome to achieve these goals are:

  • Lack of role models in executive positions
  • Boxed mentality of organisations
  • Focus on gendered structural approaches to hiring
  • Resistance to change and lack of effort
  • Short-term financial focus

Holistic approach to nurture women leaders
To mitigate this workplace imbalance, organisations must adopt gender-equitable practices across the employee lifecycle. Focusing on hiring, mentoring and retention in a gender-neutral way is the first step that can make a world of difference. Seeing successful women leaders in the organisation can have a snowball effect, inspiring others to leverage their experiences and skills to perform in similar roles.

From an organisational point of view, putting in place mindsets, policies and infrastructure that encourage women leaders should be a core priority. These include flexi-time policies, opportunities to relaunch careers post maternity and long-term sponsorship programmes. Judging employees purely on outcomes is also imperative.

Progressive enterprises have already realised the business impact of balanced gender representation. The ripple effects of such a scenario create faster visible and vocal improvements as women fill more leadership positions. However, there is much left to be done to reach a stage where women leaders are the norm rather than the exception. Companies must holistically adopt an inclusive, forward-looking philosophy to build a diverse workforce, and change existing patriarchal mindsets permanently.