Margaret Kett discusses the issue of gender diversity in the boardroom and what can propel women into the higher echelons of management.
Read any business publication today and there is highly likely to be a piece regarding women in the C-Suite or the boardroom: or more to the point, the lack of them. Be it as an editorial, an opinion piece or a letter to the editor, much of the rhetoric that surrounds this topic is that to succeed in business women have to fight harder to be seen as equals and be heard.
Many will agree that the growing presence of women in senior roles is changing management cultures and influencing methods of decision-making, but few will doubt that there is still a gender bias in senior roles and CEO positions globally. Gender discrimination is one theory that is often expounded but I believe a more plausible explanation is one based on social realities.
These social realities often involve management practices that continue to be based on what could be called stereotypical masculine traits. It’s not difficult to understand the evolution of these types of management ideologies: more men have reigned supreme in the C-Suite and in the boardroom than women.
It is this gendered nature that continues to ensure women may have little opportunity to gain access to the top echelons of the management hierarchy. Crucially, the gender issue is not something that is restricted at senior executive level but can be found right across the organisation. Where women employ management behaviours that do not ‘fit’ with the leadership models accepted by employees, managers and senior executives, this potentially leads to a lower performance evaluation, even though the actual results the female executives achieve are in line with (or exceed) the corporate objectives.
Preparation for the highest roles
Furthermore, these social realities also extend beyond the confines of the organisation. For example, young women who strive to carve out a career in the corporate world are often told that they first need to obtain an undergraduate degree from a respected university. Once they have graduated, they should consider either undertaking postgraduate studies at a leading business school or seeking a job at a top organisation – usually a management consulting or accounting firm, an investment bank or a major law firm. Yet if we consider those women at the top today there is a only a low proportion who have followed this route.
Sound academic advice, perhaps, yet it could be the business schools that actually propagate the notion that leadership is a function that requires masculine characteristics: someone who is transactional, assertive, an authoritarian and who, emotionally, is in complete control. I’m sure that there is no deliberate intent to masculinise the function of leadership, but students inevitability come to accept a stereotypical view of leadership alongside preconceived opinions of what it takes to be an effective leader. This view is then taken into the workplace as the model for effective management.
It is these management traits based on social realities that have a far greater potential than female discrimination to further engender inequality at senior levels in organisations.
Gender diversity raises a number of issues, particularly in relation to the challenges that corporations are facing as we come out of the current financial crisis. As an experienced executive search professional, most business leaders and captains of industry I come into contact with agree that, in addition to global business trends and political concerns, social and environmental issues will significantly impact their organisations’ ongoing development.
In order to maximise on the opportunities that lie ahead, they believe that the capacity of leadership to manage change effectively, drive their companies forward and gain a real competitive edge, is of paramount importance. To achieve these objectives, many are beginning to accept that leadership behaviours must change. Irrespective of what political and stakeholder pressures are being applied in relation to having more women in the C-Suite and boardroom, they firmly believe that the very best talent must be brought together to successfully address the challenges that lie ahead.
Given that there can be distinct differences in management styles between men and women, achieving greater gender parity and developing a variety of leadership styles has become a strategic imperative for a growing number of companies. Also, given the stereotypical management traits that exist in many corporations, business leaders accept that they may be facing a long and demanding journey. For most, however, they are simply not prepared to wait.
The advantages of ‘feminising’ modern management practices (as against the more traditional autocratic style often associated with male gender stereotypical characteristics) is a topic that has been broadly discussed as far back as the 1990s (and possibly earlier). Transactional and transformational leadership styles continue to be addressed and are gaining momentum as executives search for ways to improve corporate performance. Women are believed to exhibit leadership styles that are transformative (compared with the transactional style of men) this is beginning to be equated with valuable leadership.
As increasing numbers of millennial generation employees enter the workforce, the style of management is going to be of significant importance. These people aren’t seeking a job in as much as they are seeking an opportunity. Workplace culture, democratic management style, a sense of belonging, variety and flexibility are the key motivators. A transformational leadership style, one which focuses on team building, motivation and collaboration with employees, is more likely to draw the best from this generation than an autocratic transactional style of management.
Both transactional and transformative leadership styles together play an important role in the ongoing development of organisations. What is essential to achieving growth objectives, however, is a greater balance between the two at all management levels. With disproportionately fewer women holding senior management positions than men, there is a real risk that the C-Suite will be occupied by those with a strong transactional style of leadership.
Encouragingly, there is a growing belief that not only do women bring a different approach to management, but also that this difference is beginning to positively influence the culture of organisations in very specific ways. Furthermore, the leadership behaviours of women that impact positively on a company’s organisational performance will only enhance and complement the management behaviours that are crucial to corporate financial performance.
There is no doubt that in some organisations the sheer size of the change required to achieve gender parity at senior management levels can be challenging. Nevertheless, in terms of management, only the ability to positively lead and motivate others should matter. Even though women are capable of achieving positive strategic change, what ultimately matters is the implementation of effective leadership.
Margaret leads the human resources practice at executive search specialists Tyzack.