The Leadership Gender Gap

By Steve Brookman

Another blog about leadership? So much has already been written and said, so what’s different here? Well, the world is changing rapidly, and leadership style, approach and qualities need to change as well. Can we learn from history? Are there examples that the past can teach us? What the past will not do is provide the magic formula for how to become an effective leader. Looking for clear lessons in history is a futile quest – there are too many and their meaning is always in dispute. History can be useful, however, in suggesting patterns and parallels, raising questions, and – equally important – giving warnings about why things go wrong.

If we go back in time, the definition of a ‘good’ leader would certainly have been different from what we believe is required from an effective leader today. Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Ghandi, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill. History provides many examples of strong leaders who left their marks, for better or for worse. Not surprisingly, most of these are men. There are very few woman who have been recognised for their leadership skills and style, Elizabeth 1st, Catherine II of Russia, Queen Victoria. There really aren’t very many that come instantly to mind, and even less if we consider political and business leaders.

“If women ran the world, there would be no wars.” It’s an old stereotype, but there’s something to be said for the effects of more women in leadership positions. In fact, according to a Morgan Stanley report, “more gender diversity, particularly in corporate settings, can translate to increased productivity, greater innovation, better products, better decision-making, and higher employee retention and satisfaction.”

It is quite alarming to consider that the first female prime minister and head of government in the world was Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and she served as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, three times with her first term beginning on July 21, 1960. Since then, very few countries have voted for a woman to lead their country. Just as rare, is a dynamic woman at the head of a major corporation.

Given the growing change in attitude in many quarters, the talk, debate and global publicity, this should be one of the most obvious changes within the modern world. But it is moving very slowly, and needs to be addressed. While the world is evolving, women are still lagging behind when it comes to leadership roles in business. Today, according to Forbes, only 26 women are in CEO roles at Fortune 500 companies, making up 5.2% of the female population, according to a report by Pew Research. The stats stay virtually the same for women CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies at 5.4%, showing that there is little movement of women making up these high-ranking positions as company leaders.

So what are some ways to close the gap? Companies need to make gender balance a strategic lever to achieve business goals. Putting gender balance on the agenda as a top goal, without diluting the skills and abilities required by the business. They need to develop and implement key initiatives that support gender equality. These should include more inclusive networking opportunities, skill-building, career development programs (coaching and mentoring) and leadership development programs. As with all successful programmes, they need to set and measure targets. Establishing concrete targets regarding gender parity, and then measure the progress by using clear metrics to count the number of women, at all levels and areas, of your business. Who is promoted most often and why? Was there consideration of the skills required as well as a strategy to address gender issues? Who is leaving the company? Why are they leaving and when?

Creating more opportunities for women needs to start with creating an inclusive environment where efforts to bring women into leadership roles within the corporate setting is part of a programme to develop a work culture where they will succeed. Some initial steps to creating this culture are to focus on education and experience in the hiring process, offer salaries based on the market rate for role and not salary history, start rewarding achievements not just hours worked and offer more flexibility around family life. These actions would start to build the foundation for gender equality and create an environment where women can develop and grow in leadership roles.

We should be optimistic that more companies will recognise the skills and leadership capabilities of women, develop a culture where gender equality is achieved and invest the time and resources into closing these significant gaps. There is a huge pool of talented leadership skills out there. Women who will make a positive difference to major companies. We shouldn’t shy away from it or be frightened by it. We should embrace it, develop it and work with it. That way, everyone can be a winner.

Steve Brookman is Senior Partner at Valtus.