“Women leaders – are we nearly there yet?” by Gemma Simon

Women leaders became a hot topic once again this week thanks to United States First Lady, Michelle Obama. During a visit to a London school as part of her global initiative for girls’ education, she encouraged an audience of female pupils to aim high, saying the world needed more girls like them to lead parliaments, courtrooms and universities. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton may not support Mrs Obama on many subjects, but when it comes to female empowerment they are at one. She has consistently campaigned for more women to access senior leadership roles. Her quote about the ’18 million cracks’ she is personally making in the glass ceiling of American politics is now legendary, inspiring many women to keep on battling. So just how does reality measure up to the visionary statements made by these two powerful women? Is the number of female executives on the rise and what impact is this having on business? Let’s take a closer look at these issues and find out what progress is being made on the ground.

Women leaders –facts and figures

Although progress has been made in terms of female representation in business leadership roles, it would be fair to describe the issue as a ‘work in progress.’ A recent poll carried out by the Institute of Directors here in Ireland found that almost a third of female directors believe the glass ceiling remains firmly in place. Barriers to progression cited in the report included male focused business networking and the existence of interlocking directorships. Although women felt more positive about the situation than in a previous survey carried out two years ago they remained reticent to put themselves forward for director level posts. A similar survey carried out in the United Kingdom found that although women made up more than 50 percent of the non-management workforce, this figure drops dramatically to 21 percent at top executive level. There it was felt that women’s careers were impacted on a gradual basis by micro issues such as not being nominated by managers for potentially rewarding assignments due to an assumption they could not travel or missing out on promotion opportunities due to maternity absence. These issues were felt to have a cumulative effect over their working lives.

Women leaders – business benefits

Yet businesses which do not proactively embrace the potential which female leaders can offer are in the long term the ones which suffer. According to a report compiled by leadership consultancy Heidrick & Struggles, organisations with senior female executives outperform those who do not have director level female representation. Modern company structures require a move away from the ‘command and control’ models of yesteryear and rely on a more empathetic style of leadership. Collaboration and support are key components of a successful 21st century management approach, qualities which are predominantly found in women leaders. Businesses with women in the driving seats consistently enjoy higher profits and better share prices, as well as wider benefits such as reduced absenteeism thanks to a greater focus on wellbeing.

Women leaders – the way forward

Women account for more than 40 percent of the workforce worldwide so the scope is certainly there for more of us to make it to the top of our game. We have the tools and the talents to match any man so what can be done to move more of us up the ladder? Here are a few suggestions:

–          Start early- Addressing the issue at a workplace level can certainly help but to be really successful action has to be taken at an earlier stage of development. Encouraging more women into business focused college and university programmes is a must. Bringing more young women into business at this stage nurtures their business abilities and encourages resilience in a corporate environment. This can help address the confidence gap often experienced by would-be female executives.

–          Be bold- Companies need to take a bold approach to unlocking the potential of female employees. The commercial gains are well evidenced so it makes business sense as those who have ventured down this path have discovered. Kimberley Clark Corporation for example completely remade its workforce to reflect its mainly female customer base. Hyatt Hotels also committed themselves to a multi-year mission to provide parity between men and women at all levels of the company – a move which has already seen a second woman joining their twelve member board.

–          Learn from elsewhere- Emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia, India and China take a much more positive approach to female leadership than established G7 countries. In these developing markets 32 percent of senior managers are women. These nations support women through measures such as egalitarian working policies in place since the Soviet days in Russia and the prevalence of live-in grandparents. Specific sectors can also offer valuable lessons. High tech companies tend to be younger than established industries and are less rigid in their management tactics. This flexible operational style is attractive to women who occupy a significant number of leadership roles.

Someone once said,

“A strong woman stands up for herself. A stronger woman stands up for everyone else.”

With collective effort, renewed confidence and reinvigorated determination women across the world can support each other and become the leaders of today and tomorrow. We may not have reached our destination just yet, but we are certainly well on the road.

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