‘More women in leadership positions make for better business results.’
From Forbes to The Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal, leading publications and business journals have highlighted numbers proving a greater representation of women in business is better business.
According to a study done by the George Washington University, an even gender split at one company contributed to a 41 percent increase in revenue. Catalyst found that companies with a higher female representation in top management outperform those that don’t by delivering a 34 percent higher return on investment (ROI).
There is a business case for having more women on executive seats. The issue has been hot and heavy for several years. The world has been talking and writing – a lot – about it.
So why is it that in Fortune 500 companies, women represent 17 percent of board members, 15 percent of C-Suite executives, and only 5 percent of CEOs?
With gender equity being such a sexy topic, why are we making minimal progress?
Do we lack motivation and the will to take action? Are leaders in executive positions not doing enough to help advance the women that aspire to sit on executive seats?
To some extent I understand the apathy male leaders have in rectifying the status quo. Men currently hold 95 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and more than 80 percent of senior management positions. Letting more women into the ‘boys club’ calls for a new set of behaviors, and new ways of thinking. We resist this change because change comes with uncertainty. It means disturbing the norm, and moving away from our comfort zone.
Yet, in my experience, men in leadership roles are growing more supportive, at least on an intellectual level.
But are women leading the way to demonstrate what empowering women can accomplish?
I have always had high expectations of myself and other women. I have always assumed women leaders lead with the goal of enabling greater access to opportunity for others who follow. I have always assumed women will jump at every opportunity to change the gender balance at leadership levels.
Much to my disappointment, having worked with and interacted with many women in leadership roles across organizations, I have witnessed reluctance, and at best, inaction.
There is apathy among some executive women leaders to be champions of women who aspire to leadership roles. What I’ve come to learn is this apathy is deep-rooted, sometimes unconscious, and often a result of the cultural context of our own upbringing and experience.
Over the course of the last two years, I have devoted my attention to better understand this issue. While I have met a few, very passionate and supportive women leaders, I’ve also seen many women leaders globally reluctant to support the development of the next generation of women leaders. From my discussions with them, I feel the following five factors are responsible for this apathy.
#1 Being Stretched Too Thin
Women leaders are so few in numbers that while we often make time to advocate for social and political reform, we lack the time to take concrete actions to bring about the desired changes, and build a support system.
#2 Believing Strongly In Tough Love
Women in my generation have climbed the ladder by working twice as hard as our male colleagues. Many have had to overcome significant challenges, difficulties and failures with little or no support from our supervisors, peers or senior leadership. Because this was our experience, and because we earned our positions without any formal support structures, mentors or sponsors, some of us see this way as the best way to identify the promising ones. This view may come from the underlying belief that being supportive to other women and actively mentoring and sponsoring them implies not giving these women the opportunity to earn their own success.
#3 Being Misunderstood
Often women leaders are reluctant to offer active support because of ‘how it may look.’ Sometimes, we become fearful that the support and endorsement we provide other women will be perceived as bias towards our own gender. The fear of losing credibility – the fear of not being perceived as “fair” – prevents some of us from taking supportive actions.
# 4 Lacking Confidence In Our Own Authority
Sadly, sometimes women leaders believe it is not within their or their organization’s capacity to provide the needed support to develop the next generation of women leaders. A lack of imagination coupled with a lack of confidence in our own ability and influence holds some of us back from taking actions to make a difference.
#5 Seeing Other Women As Competition
A few, very few, in my view, lack interest in supporting other women, as they feel more women at the top will dilute their current achievements and increase the competition for future opportunities.
We Can Make A Difference
To Men Leaders:
Do not fear letting more women into the top echelons. What you may lose by letting go of the “boy’s club,” you will more than make up by gaining new ideas, new perspectives, a better work environment, and improved business results. Not to mention feeling a renewed sense of accomplishment having contributed to making the world a more just and equitable place.
To Women Leaders:
Be confident about your strengths, achievements and successes. They are yours and well deserved. Do not waiver or be apologetic about providing the support to help other women realize their full potential. Remember, women are starting off from a point of disadvantage. We lack the kind of networks that men enjoy, and have fewer role models and women leaders who can sponsor us. We get paid less for the same roles and results. Through conditioning from our childhood, we often lack confidence to speak up and ask for what we need or want. In addition, as research has shown, in most societies women bear a greater burden of home and child-care, while juggling their careers. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true. So your active support is not bias but essential to level the playing field.
Imagine that you had the support and networks to help accelerate your career. It would have had an immeasurable positive impact on the level of your achievements, made your career journey more enjoyable and enabled you to do far more for your family and community.
To Aspiring Women Leaders:
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, and what you deserve. Invest in yourself. Do not always wait for your boss or your organization to invest in you. Be proactive in finding people and resources to support your aspirations. Be the change you wish to see.
As women, we need to challenge our own psychology and attitude as much as we need to challenge the system that is disempowering us from achieving our aspirations.
We can work on this together, women and men. We all have experiences and insights that we can share and learn from. Let’s create a collaborative ecosystem, where we listen to different perspectives, discuss, introspect and engage. Let’s lend that supporting hand to others.