Shift in perspectives needed to get women to the top

Amid greater access to education, women still occupy fewer leadership roles in today’s corporate world. To address this, we need to re-examine the underlying issues to formulate an effective and lasting solution.

The issue of women advancing in the workplace is often labelled as a “women’s problem,” which instantly creates a roadblock to move forward. With this description, the issue is mainly focused on women. However, there are many factors at work, and men, as well as entire organisations need to be involved when it comes to developing and retaining female executives.

A contributing factor is the attitude of the CEO of the company. In a survey of 1,500 employees in Australia, it was found that most of them do not perceive their CEOs as willing to promote gender equality in the workplace. They noted that CEOs were readily discussing promoting gender equality, but were not as effective in implementing it. As a result, female employees are left with the notion that they cannot climb the corporate ladder. If companies want to get serious on leading women to the top, CEOs need to change their attitude on gender equality. This includes demonstrating an inclusive behaviour during executive meetings; where women employees can see that their opinions are valued. Aside from this, CEOs should offer both genders equal opportunities for career advancement in the organisation.

Another factor is the predominant corporate structure and culture. Even if women are appointed to senior roles, they are most likely to be designated as head of marketing or human resources, where they do not manage a company’s profit and losses. Women need to take risks and position themselves for roles that have strategy, influence in key decision making and P&L responsibilities. These roles will broaden opportunities for women to achieve future COO and CEO positions.

Companies need to modify their corporate structure and culture if they truly want to cultivate gender equality among leadership roles. One effective method is to remove names and any reference to gender from CVs and applications so the shortlist is based on merit and not an unconscious bias.

How some companies address gender inequality

One company that moved to promote gender parity among its executives is Clemenger Group. The marketing communications company refined its structure after realising that there were no women in senior roles,. Clemenger implemented a gender diversity team that studied the company’s performance on gender parity, and went on to roll out initiatives that included more women into senior management positions. As a result, the percentage of women in the company’s executive teams now ranges from 30% to 40%.

This strategy is somewhat similar to  HSBC Canada. To promote gender equality among executive positions, the banking firm enforced a five-year diversity plan, and instituted eight employee resource groups to help the company implement its strategy. Out of the 10 people at HSBC Canada’s board of directors, five are women. More than half of the company’s senior executives are also female. The bank’s action is quite timely as the Ontario Securities Commission will begin to require local businesses to report on what they are doing to appoint more women into executive positions.

While I don’t agree with gender quotas, I do believe that executives have a large part to play in making a company accountable for a diverse leadership team.

Women need to step up too

As mentioned earlier, the gender inequality in leadership roles should not be concentrated on women alone. Nevertheless, women should be involved in addressing the problem to solve it immediately. For women at the top, they can leverage the power they have to promote parity in senior leadership roles.

In addition, women also need to realise the value that they can bring to the table. Kate Burleigh, managing director of Intel Australia/New Zealand, used her marketing and communications background to make the company’s products more consumer-friendly. In mentoring young leaders, she often tells them to “reinforce your point of view, develop ways of being heard effectively…” This is a valuable lesson for all women: those aspiring for advancement and those at the top. To achieve equality in leadership, women need to become more confident in their own capabilities, and stop looking for approval from others.

Women also need to determine what their value proposition is and how they differentiate from others and then clearly articulate this to people of influence.

In confronting the lack of women in executive positions, the answer is this: men, women and organisations need to come together to resolve it.