Why Business World Needs to Embrace Women in Leadership
According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of female Fortune 500 CEOS reached it’s all time high of 6.4 in 2017 (32 out of the 500) and fell to 4.8 percent again in 2018 after several of those women left those roles. And while even these small gains should be celebrated, the question of why this advancement has been so slow, so incremental, remains. In 2019, with women comprising more than half of the population, why industry and commerce don’t even come close to that representation in leadership is still pretty baffling.
The other question inevitably raised by these statistics is how these women who were able to attain these positions of power went about doing so — in a male-dominated world, women often report feeling like they have to “act like men” or otherwise subsume their own instincts and management styles in order to be accepted into the boy’s club of C-level executives.
The inherent flaw in this reasoning is that “traditionally female” and “traditionally male” styles of work and leadership are neither set in stone, nor in direct competition with one another. No gender can be viewed as a monolith in terms of business or management styles, but it can’t be denied that qualities like competitiveness, ruthlessness and assertiveness, which are typically viewed as masculine, have driven the business world pretty much since the beginning.
As women have infiltrated the sphere of management, it has become clear that women offer a different perspective and a way of working with and managing people that can produce the same successful outcomes or better. But even with that advancement, recent research backs up the idea that many, men and women alike, still feel those male-associated qualities are necessary for effective leadership, over traditionally feminine qualities like patience, empathy and communality.
To break through that mental barrier, which has been entrenched in us over decades, centuries even, we have to learn what it actually means to embrace diversity in leadership. To embrace something means to wholly and enthusiastically support it. We need to create an environment where both sides of the equation are not pitted against each other, where women and their input are not merely tolerated but actually valued on their merit, not simply because a quota is being met or a policy being followed.
By keeping women out of the highest echelons of business, we’re losing out on 50 percent of the possible brainpower, the potential for new ideas that always comes along with increasing the diversity of a group. Different backgrounds and perspectives foster more creativity and innovation, and there are dozens of studies out there to support that. So why wouldn’t we want to seek that out? Why would we frame this issue as either/or when it should be both, working in concert, ideas and management styles augmenting and supporting each other?
It’s a paradigm shift that has to come from the top, and from inside us all, and it is not going to happen without some static.
When people of different backgrounds, whether it’s gender, race, sexuality or any other, come together, there can be discomfort, mistrust, lack of engagement. Similarity bias is the natural instinct we have to surround ourselves with people like us, and it’s not necessarily a conscious reaction, which is what makes it difficult to pinpoint and “fix.” Breaking through that bias and the negative perceptions it causes requires time above all; people need time to develop trust and psychological safety with those who are different from them, and there can be clashes at the start. But given the time and space to work through those issues, those groups can start turning out work that makes a competitive difference for your organization.
So it’s not just about what you teach them, it’s also about knowing how they’ll learn those lessons. A section in your employee handbook and three-hour long workshop is not going to cut it if you want to actually take advantage of the benefits of diversity and inclusion. You have to not just preach it, but literally immerse your organization in it for good. Diversity and inclusion should inform all of your decisions and it should be centered in your processes, rather than an afterthought or a box to check. You should be considering it a long-term investment.
This means creating those diverse groups and having them work together to accomplish goals and overcome obstacles — a practicum of sorts, in conjunction with teaching the concepts and tenets of inclusion. The more relevant, meaningful connections people can make with new information, the better their retention of and engagement with those ideas moving forward. They don’t just hear how diversity and inclusion benefits them and their organization; they see it firsthand, by being a part of it.
Our organization, which recently rebranded as ion Learning, seamlessly integrates the methodology of small group work sessions to work alongside our e-learning tools, creating a platform that can be licensed by any organization to create real cultural change. Our courses really get at the heart of why people think the way they do, with the understanding that implicit biases are the result of hundreds of years of evolution, not being a bad person. We allow our users to gain that understanding over time by developing personal trust and safety with people who are different from them.
It’s dangerous and reductive to assume that elevating women displaces or otherwise harms men. Leadership traits like confidence and assertiveness are not the sole purview of men. Leadership traits like compassion and empathy are not only present in women. All of these traits play a role in the effective leadership of a business, and it’s time we stop putting people in boxes and let all of those strengths, whether they are displayed by a person identifying as male or as female, complement each other.
We need to make space for people to rise through the ranks without changing who they are, and further, learn to embrace them for their unique value. With 100 percent of our available brainpower working for us, just imagine what we could accomplish.