Kathleen Brush
Kathleen Brush

Leadership and Strategy Consultant

Advantage Women: Women in Leadership

Available 2018/2019

Advantage Women: Women in Leadership in the 21st century managers

The workplace can be intimidating for women; workplace policies can be gender neutral, and male executives can sincerely speak of gender equality, but the feel of a man’s world seems baked between the organization’s walls. That’s because it is. In the 19th century an Australian suffragette, Louisa Lawson said, “Men govern the world, and the schemes upon which all our institutions are founded show men’s thoughts only.” In the 21st century this is still the case.

In business men are still overwhelmingly occupying positions of senior leadership. Globally, women occupy: 24% of senior management positions; 12% of board positions; 4% of chairpeople, and 4.2% of Fortune 500 companies. The latter is up from 2.5% in 1998. The math on that is women have achieved a 1 percent increase in the highest positions of business management in each of the last two decades.

The reason isn’t that our government doesn’t support gender equality. In the United States we’ve been passing laws to reinforce gender equality (and racial equality) for 150 years. Laws though must be enforced. Why did it take until 1974 or 103 years for the Supreme Court to rule that head and master laws that gave men 100% control over marital property violated an amendment passed in 1871? Maybe the problem was too few women in the legislature. In 1974 women had zero representatives in the Senate and sixteen in the House of Representatives, or less than 4 percent.

In 1963 the equal pay act was passed. At this time women earned 59 percent of men for comparable work. In 2015 it was 83%. So mandating equal pay has resulted in the un-admirable pace of progress of 0.5% increase per year. Could it be that the problem is still few women in positions of legislative leadership? That could easily be part of it. In 2015 women were representing about 20 percent of legislative leadership positions. That means women have been averaging a 1 percent increase in legislative leadership every five years. When it comes to this institution women’s thoughts are slowly trickling in.

In 1972 Title IX was passed prohibiting discrimination against women in college. In 1972 women made up 41 percent of college enrollments, now they make up 56 percent. So this appears to be working, or is it? Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Why then are women so poorly represented in senior leadership? Could it be related to under-representation of women in senior positions of academic leadership? Women are the majority on campus but they occupy only 30% of university board positions, and 26% of university presidents are women.

Or could it be the influence of management writers that are overwhelmingly men. Is it men’s thoughts that are unconsciously being taught by virtue of the source? Have MBA programs been unintentionally designed to prepare men for leadership? Is this why are there so many women in leadership programs surfacing and covering topics that are not part of the standard MBA program? Will these have greater success than the numerous programs in place in public and private organizations to advance women in senior positions of leadership? Not if the underlying problem at the crux of all of this is not addressed.

When it comes to selecting someone for a position of progressively superior leadership the qualities that are sought resemble those found in men. This makes sense because these are the same qualities taught in business school and the same ones defined by men who are occupying the bulk of senior leadership positions. When an interview team is evaluating different candidates they may not even know that they are looking for qualities typically found in men, like a laser focus on the bottom line, leaving empathy at the entrance to the office, decisive, and visionaries. A cynic would say, women can display the same qualities; after all they have the same training. But, that doesn’t hold water because research shows that women in leadership that act with behaviors typically found in men, are rejected for promotions because they are cast as inauthentic for acting like men.

This phenomenon of the aura of male thoughts underlying decisions on what constitutes superior and inferior behaviors in leadership is the invisible elephant in the room. His name is patriarchy. He’s been around for thousands of years and he is baked into the walls of organizations.

There is though a good chance that the elephant may be becoming smaller in the 21st century due to a new zeitgeist influenced by globalization, the internet offering uncensored input from diverse sources, and an overdue shift in openly discussing inequality and shedding light on where women see inequality but men really don’t because they don’t know about that invisible elephant.

This zeitgeist may be the tipping point that offers the possibility of the century of the woman leader. Skills that define a superior leader in the 21st century will be different and some of the most valuable skills are inherent to women. Interestingly, it is the soft skills that have held women back for ages that will count among the most valuable skills of superior leaders.

Workplaces will be increasingly diverse and superior leaders will be inclusive. The best person for any job will be male, female, LGBTQ, and of any color and ethnicity. Being an inclusive leader will also be a real asset because the 21st century leader is also a globalist. Leaders must be open to people and places.

In the 21st century the best leaders won’t be someone championed for being independently decisive. The world is too complex. The best leaders will be collaborative relationship builders that efficiently process data from diverse people to make superior decisions.

The best leaders won’t focus on maximizing shareholder value; they will find much greater rewards for maximizing stakeholder value. Contemplating multiple constituencies when making strategic directions is in and it will pay greater dividends than tunnel vision. But this requires leaders that are inclined to make decisions that benefit broad groups.

The bottom-line will always be important, but the methods to achieve the best outcomes are changing. Instead of focusing on numbers the focus must be on people. Successful leaders know they are leaders of people; thinking, feeling, emotional people. Leaders that grasp this and live by the creed that they are above all leaders of people will find loyal, motivated, productive employees that will outperform anything possible by focusing on numbers.

In the 21st century every leader must realize that the world is her stage because there are citizen reporters everywhere. Egos that project superiority attract attention. Honesty, integrity, and humility will be key leader attributes that keep distracting negative publicity away.

The profile of the superior 21st century leader is one that leverages the inherent soft skill advantages of women including: inclusive, collaborative relationship builders, perceptive, empathetic, honest, having integrity, humility, receptive to other cultures, and making decisions that benefit the broadest practical audience.

But, these advantages will come to naught if they are not applied to maximize the benefits of the hard skills of standard MBA courses, like strategy and finance that are essential to being a business leader. And this hard and soft skill combination will only carry women so far up the career ladder if they do not recognize the implications of an elephant in the room that may slowly be getting smaller but isn’t going anywhere.

It has always been a patriarchal world. It won’t always be that way, but it will take lots of women leaders to shift it. This will take time and perseverance. A reliance on laws or media shaming are not a solution. This has unobtrusively forced discrimination under ground. That benefits no one.

If women take their inherent soft skill advantages and apply them to the necessary hard skills to lead they will possess the characteristics of superior leaders. When it comes to promote someone into a higher position of leadership these superior leaders who have been collegial partners in the workplace will be selected because they will be accepted and respected for their performance. In their new positions their male colleagues won’t see them in the terms of some hackneyed outdated stereotype of women; they will see them as collaborative colleagues that are respected for their contribution. And this will benefit everyone.

In 2015, McKinsey published a report showing that if women were to play the same roles as men in the labor markets, “…as much as $28 trillion could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.” A staggering 25% increase. How many people would be lifted from poverty? How much impact could this have on quality of life all over the world? At the current rate of progress we don’t need to start counting those dollars yet, and not even this century. But there is upon us a tipping point and fast-tracking progress is completely within our reach.

When we achieve gender equality in leadership, we will also be conquering the long awaited goal of gender equality. Both hold many important benefits for the world.