Why the world still needs more female leaders

Female leaders continue to be underrepresented in political and corporate top leadership positions despite overwhelming evidence that women (too) bring valuable strategic, operational, communicative, and leadership skills to the table.

Note: We are back with a revised version of our most popular blog post to date. Enjoy new insights from the latest research, up-to-date statistics, and a reflection of female leadership through COVID-19.

The focus of this article on gender-diverse management is on women, but our more overarching stance on the issue is that all gender identifications (man, woman, non-binary, etc.) deserve fair and unbiased opportunities to become leaders.

Despite that fact that women make up around 40% of the formal workforce worldwide, they are still underrepresented in leadership positions in 2021. Structural, institutional, and cultural and barriers impede women from seeking and obtaining the highest-ranking positions across all sectors. In this article are some of the reasons it makes sense - also financially - to put gender diversity on the agenda.


Gender-diverse businesses have better outcomes

"Only 8 Percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 Companies are Female" - Statista, 2021

Women in the workforce always seem to be in the news. In the 2021 case of Blizzard, it was for sexual harassment. In the 2020 case of Pinterest, it was for marginalizing and excluding women from decision-making processes. Both issues are not the most encouraging for women in the corporate world. So why is this still happening? For Blizzard, the gaming industry has a reputation for a notoriously toxic culture, and for Pinterest, women in tech seem to face a unique set of challenges.

But in other news...

Research by McKinsey found that companies with gender-diverse corporate leadership outperform less diverse peers financially. In fact, the greater the representation of female leaders, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. The most gender-diverse companies (more than 30% female) are a staggering 48% more likely to outperform those with fewer than 10% female executives.

Gender-diverse companies have the benefit of diminished groupthink, a phenomenon where a group of similar people will tend to gravitate towards the same decisions, opinions, and reasoning. Having a diverse management team can ensure a healthy degree of competing opinions, to produce the best possible outcomes.

In the political sphere, statistics by UN Women reveal that women are underrepresented. If the development continues at the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.

We aim to get a better gender balance at our events for leaders and upcoming leaders by inviting more female speakers, presenters, teachers etc. and hope the gender balance among the participants will develop to be more even too - IDA, on their work promoting the female leadership agenda

So studies in both corporate and political spheres are (and have been for years) making a clear case for introducing more women to the corporate management sphere. And companies must be following suit, right?

Wrong…

There is a significant disconnect between what the studies recommend and what is actually observed in the business sphere. In fact, according to a global study by McKinsey, gender diversity in leadership teams has progressed slowly from 2017-2020, with just 1%.


What women bring to leadership positions

“It is time to realise that diversity is a strength and take action. The brave ones get a competitive edge over their peers, more innovation and better financial results.” Joo Runge, co-founder InTech Founders & board member of Women in Tech Denmark

So if we look at the data and think about the meaning of gender diversity, we aren't really hitting the mark, are we? And businesses are missing out. The argument being made here isn't just for the sake of fairness, democracy, diversity, and equality - although those arguments alone should be enough - and companies shouldn't embrace gender diversity because it "looks good". Women (too) bring a variety of skills, perspectives, and traits that drive effective solutions.

Don't you want the skills, perspectives, and qualities of 50% of the world's talent equally represented in your organization?

Organizations with an overweight of men need more women to ensure a more nuanced perspective on everything from market analysis to finance, ethics, consumer behavior, culture, sales, and leadership. In the same way, companies that mainly employ women will benefit from the appointment of more men. We need equality of all genders to ensure the best combination of skills and traits - as well as a healthy mix of opinions from people with different lifeworlds.


Female leadership during the pandemic

From early on in the pandemic, the gender of political leaders have been discussed in the media. According to numerous articles (see, e.g., NY Times, The Guardian, and Forbes), the success of female leaders' handling of the pandemic has been associated with their gender. These articles have highlighted traits that historically have been associated with the feminine as the source of success; Collectivism, community, trust, and compassion.

Source: Worldometer, World Bank and Johns Hopkins University

Notable female leaders such as Angela Merkel (DE), Tsai Ing-wen (TWAN), Jacinda Ardern (NZ), and our own Mette Frederiksen (DK) were quick to act despite possible economic consequences. They used collectivistic rhetoric, emphasizing interdependence, solidarity, and the protection of the community (source).

In contrast, Donald Trump (US), Jair Bolsonaro (BR), and Viktor Orbán (HU) tended to utilize language associated with fear and military jargon (e.g. 'at war' and 'under attack'). Furthermore, they have been accused of using the crisis to gain more power, creating more polarization instead of more unification.

According to a comparative analysis of female and male-led countries of similar socio-demographic and economic characteristics, the former did indeed seem to navigate the pandemic with fewer deaths and cases. The researchers credit this success to a greater willingness to take economic risks and a more democratic and participative leadership style.

Source: Worldometer, World Bank and Johns Hopkins University

So, does that mean women make better leaders?

No, not necessarily. It means that certain leadership styles are more appropriate for different situations and that our socially constructed idea of what is "male" and what is "female" gets intertwined in the evaluation of leaders.

One thing is certain, including more women in top political positions ensures that we do not overlook 50% of our population and the talent they possess. Moreover, if emphatic, community-oriented, and participatory leadership styles prove to be the most effective and sustainable, why accredit them to women only (source)? Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, has been accredited with having a "female" approach to handling the pandemic, but why do we even have to make that distinction?

Men and women are not so different

A lot of people are under the deeply rooted assumption that there are fundamental differences to the genders and therefore their leadership abilities. The idea that women are more collaborative, caring, and emphatic is simply not supported by science. When it comes to skills, inclinations, and attitudes, women and men are not that different.

What does however differ, are the circumstances that men and women face.

Generations of structural (e.g., maternity leave and domestic tasks), organizational (e.g., exclusion from social events or clubs and the lack of mentors), and cultural (e.g., socially constructed gender stereotypes) barriers hinder women from seeking and obtaining management positions.

In a nutshell, “context explains any sex differences that exist in the workplace” - Harvard Business Review, 2018.  

Looking at the example of maternity leave, women are often expected to take the majority, if not all, of the time off with their newborn. The underlying structural expectation for women is that they put their family first, and that they as a result will become less ambitious at work after having children. On the other hand, the expectation for men is that they power through the fatigue and stress that come with expanding the family, and only take little time off work. The option for men to get more maternity leave is therefore harder for them to pursue, because of these two-way hidden structural expectations.

Initiatives such as distributing child allowance money to both parents (encouraging men to participate more in domestic chores), and maternity leave earmarked for the father can make it easier for men to step into new roles in their family lives. It can also alleviate some of the burdens that are placed on women, creating more equal opportunities for both.

Changing the structural settings around gender roles in the workplace instead of reinforcing gender stereotypes - well-meaning or not - that keep women in lower-level positions can ensure that more equality is achieved.


It starts early

The consequence of these structural, organizational and cultural barriers can be seen early on. The lack of role models, the different expectations from society, and gender stereotypes learned from a young age means that both men and women tend to underestimate the ability of women.

This tendency has been traced all the way back to the school bench, where women’s perceptions of their academic abilities tend to be underestimated and mediates their perceived professional skills.

This is especially true for women in STEM, where doctoral researcher Katelyn Cooper states that this very phenomenon makes it harder for women to pursue careers in science and that it begins long before their professional careers take shape.

"This is not an easy problem to fix. It's a mindset that has likely been engrained in female students since they began their academic journeys." - Katelyn Cooper, 2018

In other words, there is a disconnect between the perceived and actual abilities of women during their education, and this disconnect contributes to their underestimation of professional skills as well - in stark contrast to the perception of employees:

"Women in leadership positions are perceived just as, if not more, competent as their male counterparts". - Harvard Business Review, 2019.

This disconnect means that women are less pushy and more inclined to underrate themselves when reviewed for a leadership position. In addition, public distrust in female leaders, legislative policies such as maternity leave, conscious or unconscious gender biases, younger people's erroneous belief that women are well-represented in politics and business, as well as many other factors contribute to the issue of low gender diversity in management.

So how do we fix it?


Complex problems require complex solutions

As there are an intertwined and complex set of factors that contribute to women not seeking, or not getting, leadership positions, there is no silver bullet. At the current rate, it is estimated that gender equality in top-level positions will not be reached in 130 years.

Simone Salung, Author & lecturer at Copenhagen Business School, explains that her "experience as a woman working in large organizations is that there is a glass ceiling. This means that women have to be much more insistent on gaining the required competences and network, to succeed in a career that is focused on making it to the top.

The closer we get to reaching high-ranking positions, the more competition, and the competitors use any means necessary. This includes men who condescendingly insinuates that women, with their shrill voices, are only there for entertainment, and for their long legs and good looks.

The new black when promoting or hiring for leadership positions is to focus on who can solve the company’s core tasks. And in this space, where employee robustness, loyalty, responsibility, competences and flexible work hours are in focus, there is a good opportunity for men and women to be equal competitors."

Companies have a responsibility to look critically at their culture (not an easy task, we know), and their structural circumstances, such as social events excluding women, in order to create an environment that is favorable to people of all genders.

It is time to realize that gender differences are not biological, they are learned, created and recreated through culture and institutions, and even the praise of certain, successful management styles as being “feminine” is a part of the issue.

Here are our recommendations for how your company can start fostering a culture where more women become leaders:

1. Sustainable dialogue

Regular dialogues between manager and employee ensure that aspirations to occupy leadership positions are heard and encouraged. Needs and pains can easily go unheard if meaningful conversations between management and staff are not incorporated into the company's basic foundation.

During a dialogue, challenges with inclusion, work environment, and perceived or actual barriers for advancing the career ladder can be uncovered. Take this opportunity to set solutions into play, such as training or mentoring.

2. Think corporate culture

Employees absorb the corporate culture of their company, and management is a determining factor in this culture. How managers act, what they communicate and do not communicate to their employees sets the tone, for better or worse.

Promote and reward role models in the management team who practices diversity and inclusion in their team - IDA, on how to tackle the gender-diversity issue

Try to create a corporate culture where emotional intelligence and communication are fostered and appreciated. This can help ensure that women do not feel they need to conform to the dominant male-centric leadership styles but can play to their strengths and ways of communicating as well.

3. Rethink the work-setting

One of the issues women are facing is that they often take on more of the domestic workload than their partner. As a result, they have to scale back their professional aspirations, and say no to opportunities due to limited time.

To combat this issue, rethink aspects of the work setting. Allow for flexibility in the workweek, by using technologies such as Zoom and Slack. Allowing an employee to work from home when their child is sick, or when they have an important household delivery, can help their work-life balance.

Invest in support programs for women (or men) who need childcare, cleaning services, eldercare etc. This can ensure that career aspirations can be pursued without sacrificing the domestic sphere.

4. Create a network of support

People find strength in others and the courage to speak up when they recognize that their views are mirrored. Create support networks or mentors in your company to ensure that women who aspire to become leaders have inspiring role models.


Empowering Every Manager to be a Leader

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Empowering Every Manager to be a Leader

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