Why we need women leaders in the corporate world

Commenting on the release of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report, Sex and Power, Katherine Rake, Director of the Fawcett Society, said:

“This incisive report shows that it is still very much a man’s world when you get to the top…women in every sector face unjust hurdles throughout their careers (and) … with so few women in power, the UK is wasting a colossal amount of talent.”

A year on from this ‘incisive report‘ and, in spite of considerable media attention on women’s under-representation at ‘the top‘, very little has changed; some would argue things have got worse with powerful men closing ranks in the wake of the global financial crisis. Furthermore, it’s not only in the world of business that women are experiencing ‘unjust hurdles‘ in their struggle to realise their aspirations; the departure of Europe Minister, Caroline Flint, in the summer of 2009 with the accusation that women ministers were little more than ‘window dressing‘, highlighted how disempowered women can be, even when, prima facia, they have significant power and influence.

Caroline Flint is unusual in that she got so far before eventually giving up; most women, faced with the stark choice of becoming like men to just to get through the door or remaining themselves and never getting near the door, choose the latter. In the words of a lady client I coached recently (a senior government advisor on economics), “I’m not interested in going any higher; I just don’t want to become like them”.

Female role models, seen by many interested women’s groups as the silver bullet that will slay the evil ogre of gender imbalance, do not in fact reverse the disenchantment with the system that so many women feel. On the contrary the few females who have made it to the top are perceived by women generally as either being forced to mimic male behaviours just to survive or tormented for not doing so – they are the concrete evidence of the intolerance for female ways of doing things at the top of the pyramid.

Talent management is currently a key concern in all industries and sectors, which is exactly as it should be as the country emerges from a recession; unfortunately the talent being managed is only half of what is available. It is compelling to argue that decision makers in business and politics should be drawn from the most talented and able people but, are men more really more talented and able than women? All the evidence from psychological studies of intelligence and ability converges on the conclusion that there is no significant gender difference; hence the conclusion that ‘with so few women in power, the UK is wasting a colossal amount of talent‘ is a logical and compelling one.

Creating more gender-balanced management and leadership structures in business is currently a hot topic. Understandably, organisations are seeking to promote women with the right experience, skills and abilities but they are clearly failing to find these women – why is this? Various commentator’s have observed that there is simply not enough women willing and able to do the work; for example, Harriet Harman, the governments equalities minister, has argued that there is a shortage of women ready to enter the boardroom. This conclusion i.e. that improving the representation of women in the boardroom is not a demand side issue but a supply problem is however based on the incorrect assumption that women need to exhibit the same qualities as men if they are to be effective leaders. There is not a supply problem it’s just that the demand is, albeit largely unconsciously, for women who can emulate men but most women either can’t or don’t want to do this and most of those who can and do are fundamentally unhappy doing so.

The origin of the unconscious search by selectors for women who can exhibit male qualities is a well documented psychological process but one that is very poorly understood generally. It is a well known psychological fact that people select in their own image; stated in its crudest form, white males are predisposed to select white males. The growing pressure to establish more equitable, gender balanced power structures has transformed this crude form into a more subtle one, i.e. the selection criteria for joining the men’s club that runs every significant power structure in society has shifted from gender (i.e. male) and skin colour (i.e. white) to psychological make-up. Whereas women were previously excluded simply because of their overt gender they are now excluded because of their covert gender; the boardroom door opens for women if they demonstrate that they think and act like men but otherwise it stays firmly shut.

But the real benefit of having women contributing to decision making in boardrooms is not that they can do the same things as men but rather that they can do things their male counter parts can’t. Men and women are distinguished by gender-specific patterns of strengths and weaknesses and when they work together these differences can be co-ordinated to achieve very effective outcomes, which is the real strength of mixed gender leadership teams. For example, men are typically predisposed to constructing logical, step-by-step solutions to problems (a left brain activity), whereas women are pre-disposed to applying intuition to problem solving (a right brain activity).

Integrating these two complimentary processes produces a powerful problem solving mechanism that can be deployed to find solutions to a large variety of problems. Unfortunately, these differences are usually misunderstood, e.g. men dismiss women as lacking analytical skills and women dismiss men for taking too long to get to the point. Gender-specific differences in verbal communication is another source of misunderstanding; men are typically more direct and ask fewer questions than women who typically prefer a softer more tentative style of communication. Both styles of communication are valid and together offer more scope for successful communication than either does in isolation; to male selectors however, being direct is indicative of confidence, clarity and credibility, important and key leadership qualities, with the obvious corollary regarding being indirect.

What is the way forward and how can women be supported and brought to the top table as equal contributors to the leadership function? The answer is simple – organisations need to take positive action to eliminate the process of selecting in one’s own image; key decision makers need to overcome this self defeating process. Intellectual understanding of how people are motivated to reward others for simply being like they are is important but for real change selectors need to reconstruct their internal maps of reality, i.e. their perceptions and beliefs about what the best candidates look like. Reconstructing those internal maps of reality can be achieved by diversity coaching, which is a process that includes examining how to…
1. Manage effectively across the gender divide; and,
2. Take full account of gender divide issues when assessing people for leadership and board room positions.

Unlike the legal remedy that Norway has chosen, i.e. compelling organisations to increase female representation in boardrooms almost overnight; diversity coaching offers a remedy that creates a genuine gender-balanced meritocracy – a far more palatable solution than Norway’s!

By Gary Fitzgibbon, Chartered Occupational Psychologist
Fitzgibbon Associates

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