Gender diversity amongst senior leaders remains a challenge for every organisation. The challenge was further compounded by the pandemic, which saw many women shouldering the bulk of the additional childcare and home-schooling burden, having a significantly detrimental impact on women’s career development.
Diversity management is a minefield for HR and talent practitioners, with recent well-publicised challenges to the effectiveness of unconscious bias training, and evidence that many of the typical approaches to diversity management can invite unintended consequences such as backlash, backfire and false progress.
So, what are the critical success factors for helping women progress to senior leadership levels? This article shares lessons from those who’ve been there: 12 female CEOs (and 139 male CEOs) of global corporations. Read what they found to be critical to their career success, providing lessons for all organisations in promoting greater diversity and inclusion.
If you’re struggling to make headway on your diversity and inclusion ambitions, you’re not alone. Progress towards achieving greater diversity and inclusion, particularly at senior levels, has been slow. And this is despite women emerging as stronger leaders in several studies:
- Women were rated more highly than men in 12 of 16 competencies relating to outstanding leadership (Zenger & Folkman, 2012)
- Analyses of thousands of 360-degree assessments reveal that female leaders outshine male counterparts in all areas but one (Ibarra & Obodaru, 2009)
Yet women are still a minority within the upper echelons of leadership in organisations around the world. The situation appears to be improving, albeit slowly. According to Grant Thornton’s survey of 10,000 leaders in global mid-market organisations, 31% of all senior management positions are now held by women, compared to 25% in 2017. Plus, could the transformation of working practices prompted by the pandemic prove to be a springboard into senior positions for more women? If so, what can we do now to leverage this opportunity?
Research from 12 female CEOs (and 139 male CEOs) of global corporations reveals what they found to be critical to their career success, and provides lessons for all organisations in promoting greater diversity and inclusion.
Three key recommendations for female leaders aspiring to senior leadership roles
- Self-acceptance – active ownership of leadership potential
Female CEOs explain the importance of coming to recognise and accept their own leadership potential, in addition to learning to cope with their own and others’ expectations about their priorities on work and family. In the words of one female CEO:
“The biggest issue of women when they go beyond middle management is to have that switch go off in their minds that they are leaders…to think of themselves as leaders.”
This is because women (and men) are socialised from a young age to view leadership as an inherently male/ masculine activity. Effective leaders are typically considered to be strong, assertive, decisive, agentic; characteristics stereotypically associated with men. Of course, women can be strong, assertive, decisive, and agentic, but when they demonstrate these characteristics, they’re judged more negatively by both men and women compared to male professionals demonstrating the same behaviours – a phenomenon known as the double-bind. So, to be seen as an effective leader, women have to demonstrate stereotypically agentic traits, yet when they do, they face social and economic penalties for behaving counter-stereotypically.
From childhood, women are given more limited access to relevant leadership experiences, which extends into their careers as adults due to ongoing limitations in access to resources or opportunities in organisations. Consequently, advice from the female CEOs in the research was that women can’t wait for their performance and or potential to be recognised, instead they need to actively make it happen. In the words of one: “be a career planner…go for it seriously.”
- Self-development – embrace gynandrous leadership
Both in preparation for CEO roles and on the job, female CEOs emphasised the importance of developing “big-picture” capabilities associated with the strategic skills needed to be an effective leader, in addition to achieving a “[lens] shift from a bottom up to a top down and an outside-in”. Female CEOs advocated achieving this through seeking diverse experiences to develop themselves as leaders, in addition to developing networks and being mentored by effective leaders:
“Work with a good manager who is a leader…example of a good case…is the quickest way of learning.”
The research also identified that successful female CEOs resolve the double-bind created by stereotypical assumptions of leadership behaviour by developing a uniquely feminine style of transformational leadership, emphasising role modeling and communication. In their own words:
“I have eventually figured out a way that works for me where someone else is not forcing me to change who I am in order to fit in but get my voice across.”
“…Am I striking the right balance between pushing an agenda strongly and balancing that well with taking people along, and that’s always a fine balance…very often there are trade-offs.”
The research authors recommend that female leaders move beyond gender stereotypes by enacting gynandrous leadership (gyne = female, andro = male), a style which embraces both feminine and masculine leadership behaviours but with the female aspects taking precedence, in contrast to stereotypical concepts of androgynous leadership.
- Self-management – conscious adjustment of personal demeanour
Finally, female CEOs described the importance of finding ways to be authentic and focused on their purpose and building an optimistic and resilient outlook. They emphasised the importance of having the confidence to push their limits and learning from mistakes and failures.
All of this rests upon, the authors argue, adopting an agile leadership style which avoids simply relying on adopting stereotypically male leadership behaviours and instead involves supporting female leaders to find their own unique style which blends stereotypically masculine leadership behaviours with their own qualities and preferences. For instance, avoid alternating between stereotypically female empathy and stereotypically male assertiveness but instead, they achieve empathetic assertiveness.
A final word…
It’s important to recognise that these female CEOs were asked about their recommendations for other female leaders in navigating their careers. As a result, the emphasis is on what individuals can do personally to navigate the territory which lies before them.
Unfortunately, in many organisations this territory remains abound with systemic, implicit bias due to deeply ingrained cultural norms which have existed for millennia. However, the personal tone of these recommendations does not undermine the responsibility every member of an organisation (particularly its leaders) has, first and foremost, to create an organisational context and climate that is free from discrimination, and which aims to actively minimise bias and promote inclusivity. Hopefully, these recommendations can help other female leaders to progress in the meantime, whilst we all continue to chip away at the deeply ingrained cultural norms and stereotypes, we’ve become accustomed to.
Athanasopoulou, Moss-Cowan, Smets & Morris (2018), Claiming the corner office: Female CEO careers and implications for leadership development, Human Resource Management, 57:617–639.