Women in leadership today and tomorrow…and hopefully before 2133!

Endaba Group

Today it was reported that the World Economic Forum believes it could take another 118 years before the global pay gap between men and women is finally closed.

There is plenty of evidence that companies do better – from increasing innovation and managing risk to growing revenue – when women are well represented at executive level –  bringing into question why there is still such gender inequality within the workplace and why it will take so long to close the gap. In 2014, a worldwide study (the most comprehensive of its kind to date) by US consulting firm DDI found that those companies in the top 20% of financial performance also had the highest numbers of women in leadership roles. “In my experience boards with a mix of women and men are more balanced and successful, especially during discussions and debates where a well-rounded and effective conclusion is needed,” says Lynette Deutsch, Endaba’s Founder and CEO.

And yet too many businesses show little more than tokenism when it comes to placing women in top roles. Although research has shown an increase in the number of companies with two women in executive roles, men still hold 83% of these positions in the US, 89% in Europe, and 96% in Asia. One in three working women in the UK admits to feeling disadvantaged in the workplace. The Bradys and Sandbergs are still very much the minority. A score of factors lie behind this – from women’s reluctance to lobby for power (a belief that hard work will speak for itself is often mistaken for lack of ambition) to the fact business tend to identify potential leaders when candidates are in their early 30s, even voice plays a part (higher pitch and upward inflections are associated with lack of authority or conviction).

At Endaba we’re advocates of meritocracy – getting the best person for the job, regardless of gender, age or race. But the structures must be in place to enable this; at the moment the skew towards male career lifecycles and traditionally masculine qualities means that outstanding female candidates are dropping from the race.

So what can businesses do to help address this? On a pragmatic level, reciprocal mentoring schemes can help by matching up-and-coming female talent with top-level leaders, encouraging both to learn from the other in an informal way. Deloitte’s version of this is a Buddy system where leaders’ mentoring efforts form part of their performance reviews and compensation. Greater flexibility (for example, employees at healthcare company Roche receive 12 days remote work per quarter) and family support schemes (e.g. after-school/holiday programmes for employees’ children). These practical measures need to be matched with education, reframing this from a ‘women’s issue’ – where the onus is on the individual woman to act like a male leader – to something everyone plays a part in, especially those holding the power. Echoing the He-for-She campaign’s ‘we’re in it together’ recalibration of feminism, the entire team has to truly want and value gender balance before looking at how to implement it. Not via a quick fix or tokenism, but a sustainable, holistic approach.

Key to this is recognising many so-called ‘feminine’ traits as business strengths. Research shows that women value compassion (66% versus 47%) and innovation (61% versus 51%) far more than men when it comes to leadership traits. Arguably it’s these attributes that powered Karren Brady’s remarkable transformation of Birmingham FC into a thriving business with a £55m turnover. Taking on a traditionally male role, she not only made the ailing club a family-focused community hub, setting up kids’ events, family-orientated ticket deals and a raft of affinity schemes (e.g. mortgage and even funeral services), but by instigating internal job swaps across different teams she helped foster empathy, understanding and a sense of unity in the workplace.

No doubt the wider shift in working culture will help, as instant global communications enable more flexible, balanced conditions where sitting at the same desk for a certain number of hours each day diminishes in importance. And many believe the future holds a more devolved, democratic working world in which anyone equipped with the right digital skills can get ahead. There’s a long way to go, but the tide is turning.