Here are two women leaders, Peta Latimer, CEO of Mercer, Singapore, and Sonia Bate, Managing Director of EDIT Development, supporting diversity and inclusive leadership efforts across UK & Global clients, who share their observations on cultural trends, what it takes to be successful, and how they are enabling other women to take the lead.
In what ways has the #MeToo movement shaken up the corporate culture for women?
Peta Latimer (PT): The awareness and courage to speak up has been nothing short of spectacular, affording many people a voice. And it has been made even better with the #heforshe movement, which is a true demonstration of what an inclusive society stands for.
In the context of career trajectories, how would you characterize the "women in leadership" progression?
Sonia Bate (SB): The first issue is knowing your personal value proposition — early on, I knew I was being paid less than my male colleagues but didn’t believe enough in my ability to fight for parity. I now know my value and worth. Another issue is labels and stereotypes. Some people expect a woman will “slow down” to have a family or that when she has one she won’t be able to work as hard. Women need to stop internalizing these scenarios. Finally, networks and support are vital — from my early career days I have invested a great deal of energy in supporting my professional and personal network. My clients, colleagues and sounding boards lean on me as much as I lean on them.
PL: On a recent all-female panel with a mostly female audience, one question about “bad bosses” provoked an overwhelming cry from the audience that the worst bosses they ever had were female. The audience was asking why — are women so competitive that they can’t help each other?
I believe multiple things are in play. Firstly, confirmatory bias — we’ve heard that women are competitive and don’t help others up the ladder, so we are more sensitive to behavior that confirms this. Secondly, unconscious bias — we tend to be more lenient, sympathetic or even explicitly biased towards people within our “group”, so if a female has a bad experience with another female, it is likely to sting more than a negative experience with a male boss. Finally, higher standards — since it’s difficult to break through the glass ceiling, those who succeed tend to have high expectations. Many women had to fight for their leadership roles and may expect greater things of those coming up the ladder.
But we should have the same expectations of bosses of any gender: to provide direction, strategy, remove any obstacles that may hinder our ability to perform our work, and understand our strengths and development areas to guide us into successful career paths. A good boss knows our motivations and is prepared to back us — giving difficult and necessary feedback where appropriate — and knows having the strongest and most empowered team will help everyone.
The "old-boy network" mentality is still in play, defined by money and power. It's who plays golf with your business is still very much done that way. Why are things not changing?
SB: I actually think things are changing. The old-boy networks still exist, but I get frustrated when I see women forming new “clubs” that mirror these archaic networks and are just as exclusive. The answer for me is not more “clubs” but inviting difference into your decision-making…. Can we change it all tomorrow? No. Can you take action to engage your male colleagues in conversation? Can you actively build sponsorship without playing golf? Of course, you can.
What are the biggest challenges or barriers to success for women in leadership?
SB: Not leveraging and valuing differences is one of the biggest barriers, not just for women but for all humans who don’t “fit” the mold. Maybe we could reverse this conversation and talk about enablers of difference.
Some women may not ask for help or invest in their professional networks. Sponsorship is the game-changer for career progression, yet many women are focused on mentorship. The bedrock of sponsorship is visibility — building trust and deep relationships with people who have your back. Thus, sponsorship is the dialogue we should be having and will be the disruptor for inclusion.
How can employers address the underlying prejudices and beliefs that drive the "glass cliff" phenomenon?
SB: We know women face greater challenges than men in their attempts to climb to the top — going back to a time when I was told not to wear trousers to work. Even when women move into senior roles, they are likely to receive greater scrutiny and criticism than men and to secure less-positive evaluations, even when performing the same roles. Company culture is the first part of the solution.
Companies need a growth mindset in which making mistakes isn’t frowned upon but is seen as a way to learn and move forward. Tackling institutional bias and having zero tolerance for bad behavior is also essential. The language you use to package your ideas and build support is key — whether you are male or female.
PL: If we’re challenging power bases, we also need to think about how to support the current “in-power group”. It is frustrating that conversations regarding women in leadership and gender diversity are often one-sided. We ask men to speak up and fight for equal opportunity in the workplace, but for centuries society has branded them ‘breadwinners’, ‘hunters’ and ‘protectors’. If women are now taking more of this responsibility, how do we help men redefine what it means to be a man? Where are the conversations about men taking greater responsibility with child care and caregiving? Why do we still laugh at men who cry? What support is there for men who are trailing spouses? Why do most organizations only give two weeks of paternity leave? This is where I think the conversation needs to be taken — otherwise, one group will remain pitted against the other.
What are female leaders doing for other women in the supposedly male-dominated digital era?
SB: I am seeing more community creation through digital tools — development programs use tech to enable accelerated connectivity, and social media has influenced economic empowerment of women in certain demographic groups. I think we need to create even-more-diverse communities including both men and women. It is not about men versus women but about high performance and better decision-making.
PL: The best thing about the changes we’re seeing at the geo-political level and with the expansion of entrepreneurship and digital transformation is a natural leveling of the playing field. So much wonderful work continues to take place in STEM for women, and the tech world offers an opportunity for anyone with the skills and an idea to change the game completely.
Whilst some of the downstream efforts like capital-raising continues to suffer from issues like bias & power-mix, there is definitely more of an opportunity to break the glass ceiling in the new world that challenges the very heart of traditional corporate structures.
What advice would you give women who are interested in taking on a leadership role?
PL: Women who take leadership roles do not have an obligation to help other women but to espouse the value of diversity and foster cultures of equal opportunity regardless of gender, background, etc. As a group moving into a position of power, it is up to us to break this cycle — and this will work only if we understand the benefits of diversity and drive a meritocracy built on inclusion.
SB: No woman makes her decisions based on a single set of criteria. Some people thrive on risk; others don’t. Some are in a financial position that allows them to take risks; others aren’t. Some people have encouragement and support from family and networks; others get their confidence knocked and are encouraged to play it safe.
I ask people to ask themselves three questions when a new role is on the table: What is the worst that can happen? Will I regret not saying yes? Is someone else more qualified for the role?