Let’s talk about leadership and gender. Okay, we understand that these conversations about gender diversity—especially in leadership roles can be exhausting. We get it. But what’s the alternative? Do we act like ostriches with our heads in the sand, or do we engage in the conversation in a meaningful way, no matter how difficult? The latter is the only option left if truth be told—especially when we consider the stats. For instance, organizations with diverse gender leadership outperform their competitors with predominantly male leadership—including advantages in higher operating margins (by a whopping 48% according to some studies), a higher return on sales, and higher earnings per share for publicly traded companies. Other benefits include improved decision-making processes and increased innovation. Sounds like a win-win doesn’t it?
Let Women Lead Now
For decades we’ve focused on developing a more gender-diverse leadership pipeline. That may have been valid decades ago, but now that pipeline is full-to-bursting with potential leaders still waiting to ascend into leadership roles. Perhaps “waiting to emerge” is misleading. They’re not waiting, they are eager and chomping at the proverbial bit. But the sad truth is that the glass ceiling may be cracked in a thousand places but it’s yet to be shattered. Let’s get real, shall we? The real question isn’t about their capabilities at all. It’s, in part, about traditional attitudes about women as leaders that present the biggest obstacle—and surprisingly not just from men.
There remains stigmatization of women leaders borne out of old notions that are in some instances religious, cultural, or just borne of plain “old-fashioned” bias and bigotry. Does that suggest bigotry is at the root of the problem? No, it doesn’t. But it would be foolish to ignore it as one factor in a complex cultural dynamic. Bias on the other hand is ever present when it comes to female leaders. No denying we’ve come very far—while also acknowledging that we’ve got so very far to go and the journey is just beginning in earnest.
Change in most instances occurs gradually, not cataclysmically. But there are exceptions to that rule, such as the Covid Pandemic that fomented immediate change—some changes embraced like remote meetings and work, and others that create havoc in our daily routines and work/life balances. As primary caregivers in the home, the pandemic hit women particularly hard.
The Way Forward
To make greater progress we have to be intentional without being adversarial. It’s not about overturning any established systems, it’s about balance, equity, inclusion, and of course—fairness. Allowing women to ascend to greater roles in leadership benefits everyone and harms no one. To be fair, this is not a universal value as there are still many cultures that prohibit women from any professional pursuits outside of prescribed gender roles—but that’s a much larger issue and a more complex challenge. Inclusion means there’s space for everyone based purely on talent, skill, and potential—meaning no one is left out or discriminated against at all.
With that in mind, it’s important that organizations begin to implement the DEI strategies that they’ve invested in for years now. That means measuring the results of those efforts in a granular way. For example, are you merely counting heads to determine degrees of diverse representation—or are you assessing the “performance” of teams with high degrees of gender diversity? We can always gain a deeper understanding of our data when they’re measured both quantitatively and qualitatively. The pay-off for the investment in data analytics and programmatic assessment is a more informed business insight to help improve decision-making by leadership. And if the body of current research is confirmed, businesses would naturally embrace a more gender-diverse leadership model.
Based on so much evidence, we have to pause and ask ourselves, “Why is this so difficult?” We can pose the question to groups, politicians, or business leaders, and it’s likely we’d get very different responses from all. But one thing would be evident and acknowledged by most. And that would be a simple response stating, “It shouldn’t be difficult at all.” And it shouldn’t. After all. It’s just smart business.