The debate: why don’t we have more female leaders?

08 July 2016

Author: Liana Cafolla


The debate: why don’t we have more female leaders?

Many companies are failing to achieve a gender balance in their senior ranks, but why is this and how can we change it? We asked the experts

‘Taking time off for childcare is still seen as a negative’
 
Many women find it difficult to get back into work if they have taken a long break. Even in large corporations, they find their CVs are too often put aside or are not really considered.
 
Gender is relatively balanced in the lower ranks, but this changes at the highest levels – and that’s down to four main factors. First, there are differences in how men and women are viewed as employees. Historically, men have been seen as stronger leaders, but gender-balanced companies have been proven to be more profitable because men’s and women’s skills are complementary.
 
The lack of a work-life balance makes it difficult for women to combine work and family; the fact that they may take time off for childcare is still seen as a negative.
 
A high-pressure, 24/7 work culture deters women from seeking leadership positions, and there are also fewer mentorship and networking opportunities available to them.
 
Finally, leadership norms that favour men are a big impediment. Change needs to come from the top – the leaders and line managers who make the hiring decisions need training and coaching.
 
Quotas are not necessarily the best way to change the number of women in leadership positions but, in the business environment of today, they can be useful in making people look outside their comfort zones.
 
Marie Swarbreck
Founder, FLEXImums, Hong Kong
 
‘We need to question our behaviour in recruitment, pay and promotion’
 
To support the pipeline of female talent and increase the number of women in decision-making positions, we need leaders who believe in the business case for diversity. Despite the reams of research proving that gender-diverse teams are less prone to groupthink, produce better results and have greater team satisfaction, men and women in senior management continue to underestimate women’s capabilities. We need to question our behaviour, attitudes and even the language we use to eliminate gender discrimination and bias in areas such as recruitment, pay and promotion.
 
We also need to shift the focus of family responsibility from women to both men and women. Until we have greater equality at home, we won’t have greater equality in the workplace.
 
While quotas have worked well in some economies, at TWF we don’t believe in them. We think the solution lies in companies voluntarily setting their own aspirational targets for the representation of women in senior roles. Reframing job specs and promotion criteria so that problem-solving, collaboration and coaching skills are given greater weight would likely help women to advance in their organisations, and policies on parental and eldercare leave, flexible working and mobility will take us a step closer to retaining female talent.
 
Unconscious bias training, mentorship and sponsorship are also critical, as is engaging men in the conversation and moving away from the view that this is about ‘fixing the women’.
 
Jo Hayes
Director, Pipeline Initiatives, The Women’s Foundation
 
‘Enabling women to take up positions of power requires policy and culture change’
 
According to traditional gender roles, men and women should assume major responsibility for the separate domains of work and family respectively. For women, the work-family interface is particularly challenging. Women with family responsibilities are at a disadvantage when advancement entails putting in long hours away from home. Especially in the financial and business sectors, long working hours and a competitive environment have become the norm. Many women may opt out of the demands of senior positions to achieve a better work-family balance. Others may fear the limelight, as a female leader can threaten the traditional power structure in a marital relationship.
 
There are fewer role models and mentors who are sensitive to diversity and target the special needs of women. It is especially difficult for women in large corporations to gain the experience and skills to compete for leadership positions.
 
Many women and men hold traditional stereotypes about gender roles in which men are expected to have superior status to women. A study of women leaders in successful marital relationships showed that their husbands and others close to them endorsed egalitarian values and were supportive of their success.
 
In Hong Kong, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Women’s Commission were set up as the central mechanisms to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. The Sex Discrimination Ordinance and the Family Status Discrimination Ordinance provide protection against unlawful discriminatory practices. However, empowering women to take up positions of power and decision-making requires concerted efforts to achieve policy and cultural changes.
 
Professor Fanny M Cheung
Pro-vice chancellor, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
 
‘Quotas can lead to tokenism rather than meaningful change’
 
In many cultures, women are expected to be the primary caregiver and have disproportionate responsibility for housework even if they are working full time. Although it is possible to have both a successful career and a family, these traditional expectations exert pressure on women and some may decide to put their careers on hold and focus on their families.
 
Companies seeking to create a supportive environment for women to reach the top need to foster an inclusive culture that values women and ensures that biases, discrimination or other barriers such as gender pay gaps are removed. An enabling environment with programmes and policies (for example, maternity, paternity or parental leave, flexibility, return to work programmes and women’s networks) is critical, as is having visible senior role models and influencers – both women and men – who champion and drive diversity.
 
The use of mandatory quotas may be a fix that can achieve a specific target, but they do not adequately address the root causes and can lead to tokenism rather than meaningful change. What is needed are strategies and targets at every level, from the classroom through to the boardroom, with an aim to eradicate biases and barriers and provide equal opportunities and true meritocracy. Good progress is being made with women on boards in the UK and Australia, for example, without the use of quotas.
 
Enlightened organisations that embrace gender diversity and create inclusive workplaces for women to succeed will differentiate themselves as employers of choice and market leaders.
 
Fern Ngai
CEO, Community Business