Dear women leaders, Don't be 'one of the guys' to fit in
A lot has been said about the absence of women in leadership positions. Just 22 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. That’s 4%. It is reasonably better in India, at about 11-14%, depending on which report you read. Needless to say, the numbers don’t look good for women leaders.
I think there’s merit in stopping to think about the question “what difference does it make to your business if you had more women leaders?” Simply put, it makes more financial sense.
Data supports the fact that women leaders contribute greatly to long term financial success of the company. Companies receive an average return of 103.4% during women CEO tenures (Fortune 1000) compared to a 69.5% average return for the S&P500 Index over the same period. Companies with one or more women on the board see a 16% average ROE compared to a 12% average ROE for companies without female board members. There are more statistics, but you get the point. Women leaders bring a different set of experiences and perspectives than male leaders. Women leaders also bring a semblance of caution to decisions that have a high risk associated with them which contributes to long-term stability of the company.
Why then, do we see so few women at the top?
Searching for the wrong leadership qualities: We often look for masculine qualities in potential leaders. We all know of successful women leaders who at some point in their career have been rejected for being too ‘soft’. There is an unwritten understanding that to be a successful leader, you have to be ‘one of the guys’. The reverse holds true as well – we reject women leaders who appear to be too masculine as ‘bossy’. It’s important therefore to understand what truly makes a great leader irrespective of the gender, and look for those specific qualities that define good leadership.
Hay Group studied 45 highly successful women executives who had reached senior leadership positions in their organizations, along with 44 successful men executives and 34 less successful women. All were from large, mostly Fortune 500 companies, including PepsiCo, IBM, Unilever, and Prudential.
Each group was examined in terms of the leadership styles they exhibited, as reported by their direct reports. The study found that:
- The outstanding women executives were twice as likely to use feminine styles as were the men
- These women also frequently used masculine leadership styles (directive, authoritative, and pacesetting)
- Average or typical women executives relied predominantly on masculine leadership styles
Besides laying to rest such myths as “men make better leaders,” and “women should lead like men,” this study points out several realities about effective leadership:
- Women managers and executives, while embracing masculine leadership behavior, should not ignore their feminine leadership styles
- Male managers and executives would do well to include the more feminine leadership styles in their repertoires
Another study by HayGroup found that women are better at using soft skills crucial for effective leadership and superior business performance than men. Some of the competencies that women outperformed men in were:
- Emotional Self Awareness
- Coaching & mentoring, Influence
- Inspirational leadership
- Conflict management
- Organizational awareness
- Achievement orientation
The glass cubicle
Another factor holding back women at the workplace is – yes you knew this was coming – women themselves. I often say that there is no glass ceiling. It’s more like a glass cubicle that we put around ourselves. Some walls are put there by ourselves – women traditionally have under-valued their abilities and thus take fewer risks in their career. Some walls are carefully crafted by ‘society’ – “you need to slow down after you have kids” and some are constructed by the conscious and unconscious biases in the minds of men and women alike. It stops women from making ‘risky’ career moves, or asking for that challenging assignment or appearing too aggressive or too soft. This is not to say that women don’t want challenging jobs - CEB research shows that women have the same aspiration levels as men and are equally willing to accept challenges as their male counterparts. They still end up making lesser choices because of the glass cubicle.
I am constantly drawn to the words of Richard Boyatzis (Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor, Case Western Reserve University) when it comes to women and leadership:
“Historically in the workplace, there has been a tendency for women to self-evaluate themselves as less competent, while men tend to overrate themselves in their competencies. Research shows, however, that the reality is often the opposite. If more men acted like women in employing their emotional and social competencies, they would be substantially and distinctly more effective in their work.”
The disappearing workforce
An average company starts off with an approximately 50% proportion of women at the entry level which depletes to about 14% by the time you reach the Top Management level. This attrition does not happen overnight. It happens at each level of the organization. According to research by Catalyst, a typical company in India is down to 24% women at the entry to management level and reaches 19% by the Senior Manager level and 14% at Executive level.
How then can we build a strong enough pipeline of women leaders?
- Address retention issues before they appear: Most women leave the workforce in their thirties. Show women the path to re-enter the workforce even before they consider leaving it
- Flexible work-life options: According to research by CEB, flexible work-life practices are key to retaining women leaders. (I’ll go a step further and say it is helpful to retaining male leaders as well!)
- On ramp process for women re-entering the workforce: Set a clear process for on-ramping women when they return from maternity leave. The more clarity you provide, the better
- Create Female Role Models – Perhaps the most important action point of them all. Taking a cue from Sheryl Sandberg, the more women we have in the workplace, the easier it becomes for other women to stay on
- Create a heterogeneous culture that supports diversity – A diverse team brings a multitude of perspectives and experiences that only add value to your business decisions. Create an inclusive culture that feeds innovation
Even if you set aside the larger goal of Gender Equality for a second, it just makes better business sense to have more women leaders in your organization. An average company loses approximately 40% of their capable and talented female workforce over time. Given the war for talent raging in the corporate world, any company that manages to arrest this erosion would have a considerable edge over its competitors.