Taking the LEAD in addressing the challenge of inadequate women in senior leadership positions
Last week, I attended a meeting in Barcelona organized by the LEAD Network (Leading Executives Advancing Diversity), whose members believe that “organizations can create more sustainable value by leveraging the full talent pool” (i.e. women as well as men). Its mission is to “attract, retain and advance women in the retail and consumer goods industry in Europe through education, leadership and business development”. Many of the world’s leading organizations are already members of the LEAD Network in their European Branches. I was lucky to attend this event and meet some great people, but overall left with some takeaways I would like to share.
Why under-representation of women in senior positions is a challenge may be appreciated from the following data points:
- Women account for just under 50% of the world’s population and represent almost 52% of Europe.
- In the US alone, women control US$4.3 trillion (yep- trillion with a “T”) of consumer spend.
- Both in Europe and the US more women receive advanced degrees than men in most fields of study.
- In 2017, women held 51.6% of all management and professional positions. Yet, only less than half (25.7%) of new Directors on the Boards of S&P 500 companies were women.
The current situation is unsatisfactory
Although diversity has been on corporate agenda in Europe and North America for many years, hard data reveals that the number of women in leadership positions is not in line with their overall proportion in the population. LEAD Network reports that on average, women constitute around 25% of Management Boards in European Retail/FMCG/CPG companies (although women constitute 55% of the total workforce in these industries). The magnitude of the gender diversity challenge at the senior leadership level can be gauged from the fact that despite many of the world’s top FMCG/CPG companies and retailers themselves being members of the LEAD Network, the best performers are P&G (32%) in FMCG and Scandinavian Retailer ICA (around 40%) is the overall leader.
Three impediments identified by the LEAD Network in this Event
The meeting discussed the following three principal categories of roadblocks women face in their quest to reach the highest echelons in organizations:
- Unconscious gender bias
- Work-life integration issues
- Women’s fear of advancement
Unconscious gender bias
Despite regulatory requirements and company policies, many organizations are still run as “Old Boys’ Networks”, where members’ own cultural, social and familial norms and personal affiliations tend to influence decisions around hiring and promotions. This leads to candidates in their own mould being favoured- e.g. Alpha Males. Indeed, the absence of such traits is viewed as a lack of “talent”, while strong emotional intelligence traits such as listening and empathy can be ignored. The irony of this situation is that L&D programs in the very same organizations work to reinforce the need for male executives to develop precisely these competencies.
Unconscious gender bias is defined as “unintentional and automatic mental associations based on gender, stemming from traditions, norms, values, culture and/or experience. For example, managers do not assign certain projects to women because the nature of the work requires extensive travel or late nights. Funnily enough, the manager may justify such decisions on the grounds that women may not be comfortable or equipped to deal with such requirements because of their other commitments (even now it is implicitly assumed that it is the woman’s primary role to care for the family). Women are thus assigned work that the manager sees as being more suitable to a woman- and possibly, less challenging or having less organizational impact. Creditable performances are seen as no big deal and given a lower weightage. This inherently discriminates against women who shoulder the additional responsibilities of primary caregiver- e.g. those with younger children or ailing family members. A McKinsey report even cites “unfailing availability and total geographic mobility” as a criterion for selection to leadership positions at one company.
The fact that such biases often manifest even without the individual’s knowledge exacerbates the challenge. An online study by Harvard found that 76% of the 200,000 participants are gender-biased. These biases manifest in the form of “micro behaviours” and body language that make candidates less confident (e.g. interviewers leaning forward less or not being expressive). In turn, this erodes confidence that is interpreted as unwillingness or inability.
Work-life balance or integration
Work-life integration (earlier known as work-life balance), was another reason cited to explain why women are not adequately represented in senior corporate roles. The very concept of work-life integration was developed to take a broader view of life. In addition to work it is meant to include, personal well-being, home/family and community.
Those who are now in their early 20s to mid-30s have very different priorities in life and are more able to make trade-offs. As workforce demographics get more weighted in favour of Gen Z and millennials, there will be a greater force for change. Today, it was mentioned, it’s practically a must that companies offer flexibility, for example to work from home, to be able to attract more members of these generations.
I was surprised that there wasn’t more discussion on the role that maternity leave plays in keeping many women out of senior level roles at organizations. Studies have shown that the wage gap between the genders too can be attributed to the woman’s decision to go on maternity leave, as mentioned in this LS International Article. And this is a topic that, in my point of view, is still pending on a global accepted solution.
Women’s fear of advancement
The first two reasons discussed have to do with people other than the woman herself. The third reason discussed has to do with the individual. It was posited that a psychological phenomenon known as “Impostor syndrome” or “Fraud syndrome”, a term coined about 40 years ago, may also be a reason for why women hold back. Despite their qualifications or external evidence of competence, some individuals fear that their achievements are due to “luck”, or that they do not deserve what they have got or that they are “frauds” for having led others to believe that they are smarter than they really are. Early research on the “Impostor syndrome” focused on women. However, it is now recognised that the syndrome affects both men and women. Therefore, while manifestation of this syndrome could certainly be a causal factor in many cases- especially when the woman vocalizes her fears of not being worth it- it would, in my view, be incorrect to attribute this as a major reason why a larger number of women fail to reach the topmost levels of organizations despite their competencies, expertise and experience.
Highly-successful women who have been reported as suffering from this syndrome include Kate Winslet, Oprah Winfrey and Sheryl Sandberg. Women who have a high degree of impostor syndrome are reportedly more tenacious. “Their self-doubt makes them more competitive, so although they may not negotiate to their own benefit, they make highly-driven leaders”.
To women (and men) who experience this syndrome, these tips may help:
- In a hyper-competitive corporate world, nobody gets ahead if they do not really possess the skills or the ability to acquire those skills. Maybe it is your sensitivity or lateral thinking ability that gave you the edge.
- Nobody knows everything- including those rivals who are insinuating in hushed tones that you do not deserve what you got. Therefore, be open to learning all the time.
- Keep a tab of your achievements, and don’t just maintain a list of “improvement needs”.
- Seek help from friends or a coach who can be objective and hold the mirror to you. But stay away from sycophants (including those in your own team).
- Set yourself high standards but refuse to let yourself be measured by other’s yardsticks.
Finding a solution
Arguably, reasons and excuses are perhaps two sides of the same coin. Just as arguably, progress depends on intent. If there is honest intent, human beings have the inherent resourcefulness to find ways to move forward. But as Ernst & Young’s Jorge Aguirre points out, many companies have taken symbolic steps to ensure that more women climb up the corporate ladder to the highest levels. These are clearly not enough and the time has come to find solutions that will deliver results quickly while also being sustainable in the longer term.
Pepsico’s Quique Hernandez made the following suggestions at the conference:
- Build a business case to showcase how the qualities that women candidates possess will benefit the organization- especially for global, matrix organizations whose leaders must display higher levels of cultural sensitivity and empathy and have superior listening skills because they will need to engage with direct reports and colleagues from around the world.
- Increasingly, consumers are becoming more discerning in their preferences. Companies and brands are responding by taking stands on societal issues. So companies that take the lead in creating pathways for women leaders (based on merit) can expect to not just attract talent but also tangibly differentiate itself.
I would add that companies institute in-house coaching/mentoring programs if they don’t have them in place already. Where they have such programs, a case can be made to reengineer them because of some hard-hitting data that was presented at the LEAD Network meeting:
- 28% of women reported that they lacked high-visibility assignments. Companies should bring in greater transparency, objectivity and consistency in the way high-visibility assignments are awarded by including this in the internal governance model. Factors such as family, ability to travel etc. must be considered after the basic suitability of candidates has been established. The candidates being considered must be given a choice in the matter and where possible, the organization must allow for flexibilities such as home-travel every two weeks or allowing the child/nanny to travel or whatever makes sense in the context of work-life integration.
- 29% of women were reported to lack female role models (from whom they can learn how to achieve higher levels of work-life integration). If the overall issue is addressed, this too will be resolved over a period of time as more women make it to the top.
 https://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-workforce-europe https://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-workforce-united-states