Women in executive positions

What’’s holding women back from the very top job? Organisations will be more profitable, more engaged and more productive when the most important decisions.

What’s holding women back from the very top job?

Organisations will be more profitable, more engaged, and more productive when the most important decisions are made by an equal proportion of men and women. This is the driver behind the work that my business does with CEOs, leadership teams, and high-potential women—and the data backs us up.

Extensive global research shows that organisations with the highest proportion of women on their boards significantly outperform others in return on sales, return on invested capital, and return on equity. Organisations with the highest percentage of women in leadership roles boast significantly higher stock values, profits, innovation, and market value. Moreover, the greater the percentage of women at executive level, the more an organisation increases its likelihood of financial success.

The greater the percentage of women at executive level, the more an organisation increases its likelihood of financial success.

Yet despite the obvious and significant benefits of promoting more women into leadership roles, many organisations are losing their high-potential women in droves. Most of our organisational clients boast an impressively leaky talent pipeline. Typically, 80 per cent of women in entry-level roles slip down to fewer than 20 per cent of women at executive level.

This leads to frustration. A female executive from a major bank recently said to me, “I’ve been attending womens leadership breakfasts for 20 years, and nothing has changed. I feel like we’re banging our heads against the ultimate brick wall.”

So how do we get more women at the very top? And, importantly, how do we get more women at the very top who thrive, who achieve results from a place of great enjoyment, authenticity, and balance?

The answer, as you would expect, is complex and multilayered. If there were a silver bullet to solving gender diversity issues, the ASX 200 would currently be led by 50 per cent women, not 4.8 per cent. In my experience, organisations and leaders gain the greatest benefit by implementing the following three practices first.

1. Work with your pipeline of female talent rather than around it. Many organisations shy away from launching a womens leadership program. They worry that women will revolt against the suggestion that they need to be ‘fixed’, and that men will question why women receive special treatment.

With these worries firmly in place, organisations then dabble in recruitment policies and flexible work practices and wonder why gender diversity measures remain unchanged.

Let me be absolutely clear. Of course women do not need to be fixed. Harvard recently released the results of a study suggesting that, in 12 of 16 measures, women make the better leaders. When an executive team reaches 30 per cent women, financial performance increases. All indicators suggest organisations need to learn from their women leaders, not fix them. High-quality womens leadership programs help emerging women leaders to negotiate what is often a less-than-ideal environment in which to work one’s way to the top, create a network of role models for up-and-coming female talent in the organisation, and enable women to remove most of the common barriers to putting their hands up for a promotion.

Leadership programs increase the number of women applying for promotion. An oft-cited study shows that women apply for a role if they believe they meet nine out of 10 selection criteria. Men will apply if they can tick off six of the 10 criteria. This study tends to be explained away as an example of women’s lower self-confidence. But here is an interesting fact: Women have bigger amygdalas (the brain’s fear centre) than men. This leads not to lower self-confidence, but to a heightened awareness of others’ emotional responses to them. This heightened awareness of others makes women outstanding leaders, as they can read and rectify the mood of a team or organisation exceedingly well. But it also means that women can shy away from putting their hands up for opportunities—not because of a lack of confidence in their own capability, but because they are worried about what others will think of them if they apply for a role they aren’t absolutely ready for.

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As published by CEO Magazine, 10 March 2015.

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