With every passing year, each new piece of research adds detail to what most people in the corporate world know already: there are not enough women in senior leadership positions. The larger the organization, the more true this fact is. In recent years in America and England, amongst other developed economies, it seems to be getting worse, not better.
As always, we search for explanations. Why do so many excellent women choose to take the career off-ramp, and why are so many of them paid less than their male counterparts for the same work? There are some compelling answers available, including how women don’t negotiate as well as men for their salaries and how they still sacrifice more than men when they have children and families.
As a father of three daughters and husband of one brilliant wife, this issue is of more than mere passing interest to me. But my interest is not so much in the causes and effects, but rather in what it tells us about the state of business and what it might portend for the future. This is more than just an issue of justice or equality: it gets to the heart of future success and viability for many organizations.
Future-Proofing Our Businesses
Much of my professional life is spent helping companies to become more “future proof”, i.e. resilient, agile and resourceful enough to deal with whatever an uncertain and turbulent future might hold for them.
To help companies make sense of the world they’re in, our team looks for key trends that are defining the near future. Some recent research by the Hawaii Research Center for Future Studies, led by world-renowned futurist, Jim Dator, identified four key megatrends for 2020:
- Accelerating non-linear change
- Increasing inter-dependence
- Increasing complexity
- Expanding emphasis on difference.
While the first three of these is fairly obvious, the fourth was a big surprise. Our expectation is that the world is getting flatter – more homogenous. But in reality, beneath the surface of ‘sameness’ that globalization has brought about, sits an even louder cry for noticing and engaging with difference. And research from other sectors confirm that companies (and any groups, in fact) that have more diversity also have more resilience during tough times, more innovation, better team engagement and exhibit better adaptive behavior when change is required.
In other words, diversity is a good thing. A really good thing!
The Value of the Feminine Touch
And therein lies my concern for companies who are not concerned about how few women make it through the ranks into senior leadership positions. These companies are demonstrating in the most obvious way that they are not that concerned about diversity. They don’t see the value of fostering different worldviews amongst their leaders.
And that’s why the issue of women leaders must be a strategic imperative for companies.
There’s an even more controversial point to be made here that will nudge us in the direction of a solution. One of the main reasons that women are not making it into senior leadership positions is because they don’t want to. It’s not a capability issue; it’s a choice. And the reason they’re choosing not to is because they don’t want to play a man’s game in a man’s world. My controversial point is this: many of the women who do make it into senior leadership positions in large organizations do so by acting like men.
I don’t mean that they lose their femininity. Not entirely anyway: look at Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer’s recent photo spread for Vogue, as an (ill conceived?) example. Although, having said that, many women in senior leadership positions opt to wear suits, crop their hair short and adopt “power poses” for their photos in various magazines’ “Most Powerful Women” annual editions.
Nevertheless, I am not talking about external appearances. I mean to say that many women who have made it to the top understand that this is a man’s world and that they have to think and act like men to get to the top. There’s nothing wrong with this choice, and well done to them for doing this so well. But the problem is for their companies. If you accept, as I do, that having different worldviews represented on a team is a good and valuable thing, then the danger is to look around a team and think you have diversity when in fact you do not. Having three women, two Asians, one homosexual, two French speakers, three youths, five Catholics, or whatever other categories you’re measuring is no good if all of those people are actually thinking and acting like middle-aged, middle-class, private school educated white men (or whatever your company’s prevailing culture happens to be).
This type of cultural hegemony is too common in organizations. And I believe it is one of the main reasons that organizations are battling to adjust to this new world we’re living in now, where uncertainty and turbulence are the new normal.
When it comes to leadership in the world, women have always had a rough deal. But the tide is turning. As we head further into the uncharted waters of the 21st century, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a new set of skills and attitudes is required to be successful in leading an organization. And many women seem to naturally possess these skills. The workplace is changing fast. A new generation of employees is looking for something different at work. A new generation of customers is looking for something different in the marketplace. And that difference will be disproportionately enhanced by the feminine touch. And that’s why it’s a problem if women are compelled to act like men.
It’s time to let women lead. It’s time to ensure that we implement strategies to make the board rooms and executive suites of our companies conducive to a feminine influence. This is not easy work, but it is vital. Its time to let women lead their way. How we achieve this will look different in different contexts, and there is no simple 1-2-3 approach that will work everywhere. But the first step is to accept that women not making it into senior leadership positions in significant numbers is a problem and a strategic issue your company needs to address, not just because you’re trying to fulfill some diversity checklist, but because the very future of your business is at stake. Make this a strategic issue for the right reasons, and you will reap a fine – and feminine – reward in the future.
This piece first appeared at Switch & Shift. It is republished here with permission.