It’s Time for a New Discussion on “Women in Leadership”

Harvard Business Review

The time has come to reframe the gender issue. The chancellor of Germany, the head of the IMF, and the chair of the US Federal Reserve are women. General Motors, IBM and Lockheed Martin are run by women. Sixty percent of the world’s university graduates are women, and women control the majority of consumer goods buying decisions. In the US, women under 30 out-earn their male peers and 40% of American households have women as the main breadwinner. In many companies and countries where I work, from Iran or Brazil to Russia, managers tell me that they recruit a majority of young women as they clearly outperform their male peers.

And yet women continue to be underrepresented in most businesses, especially at the senior levels. Given this split – women’s potential on the one hand, and their relative absence from the highest levels of business on the other – it is tempting to keep banging on about “fairness” and “equality” on the one hand, or to assume that surely the women who don’t make it to the top must be doing something wrong on the other.

In fact, it is time to shift the discussion away from a lingering women’s problem or an issue of equality and instead focus on this as a massive business opportunity. Instead of continuing to discuss the problem, we ought to present solutions: roadmaps to businesses that are better balanced, arguments that help companies and managers understand and benefit from shifting global gender balances. The shift is away from wondering what is wrong with women who don’t make it to the top, and towards analysing what is right with companies and leaders that do build gender balanced leadership teams – and tap into the resulting competitive edge.

Smart leaders have understood for a while now that gender balance delivers better and more sustainable performance. That companies with more gender-balanced leadership teams out-perform those with less. While the skeptics will spend another decade resisting this fact with demands to prove causality, the best leaders prefer leading the charge to following it. So it would now make sense to focus on the leadership competencies that enable certain leaders to build gender-balanced organizations. And to note those that don’t, and start calling them to account.

Building a gender-balanced organization takes skill, determination, and courage. It can be taught, encouraged, and rewarded. That’s what the best companies do. They put the focus and the accountability where change happens: on the front lines. As with other change management initiatives, the responsibility ultimately falls to leaders.

And yet today, many managers (both male and female) are totally uneducated in all things gender. Many business leaders around the world have no idea that women are now the majority of university graduates – from Sweden to Saudi Arabia. They aren’t aware of — or comfortable with — the differences between how men and women work. Executives have been raised to ignore gender differences (such as different communications styles or career cycles) rather than become skilled in managing them. For the same reason (“only competence counts” is the usual refrain), they aren’t used to thinking that balance itself may contribute to better performance, innovation and customer connections. So we must educate them. Stop creating internal, women-only networks — replace them with mixed-gender networks aimed at balancing management, rather than promoting women. Almost no one is against balancing, while many men and women alike are uncomfortable with targeted quotas for women. Men feel that they are deeply unfair, while women are insulted at the idea of being perceived as getting promotions only because of their gender.

I do think there is a role for advocates in this shift. External watchdog groups, focused on corporate performance and governance, can be powerful amplifiers of the kind of leadership that we are aiming for. They should be focused on measuring and celebrating what the best companies and CEOs do, and publicizing and shaming those that don’t deliver. They should be fun, relentless, and professional. They should also, I would argue, focus more on “balance” than on “women.” Include men who get it – and celebrate that fact. It’s time. Reframe, rebrand, and make leaders accountable for adapting to 21st century realities. That is the work that now lies ahead.

The world is living through one of its most historic and peaceful revolutions: the gradual rebalancing of the genders’ social, educational and economic power. We have never seen anything like it before – no wonder it has been a bit confusing. This rise, and its consequences, need to be better understood and managed by most businesses and managers. It has altered the life of every man, woman and child on the planet. It yields opportunities and competitive advantage to smart companies. Who would want to miss out on that?

 

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