The research is clear and the results speak for themselves — to be successful, companies of the 21st century need women leaders. The characteristics and talents that women often bring to the workplace are closely aligned with Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd’s definition of effective leaders in the 21st century — leaders who have a collaborative mindset, are developers of people, are digitally confident, are global citizens, and who anticipate and build for the future. Women leaders tend to be relational and collaborative; they engage and empower all stakeholders; they demonstrate values-based and purpose-driven leadership; they focus on the long-term instead of short-term fixes; and they look beyond the bottom line to their organization’s impact on people, community and the environment. 

These benefits are evident in organizations that have greater diversity in senior leadership and board governance. Companies with more women in senior leadership positions, on average, far outperform those with fewer on a variety of financial performance indicators. Companies with more women board directors have greater diversity in senior management ranks. Companies with more women in senior leadership positions practice more corporate philanthropy and engage more in corporate social responsibility initiatives. The diversity of thought and perspectives that women leaders bring to decision making increases the likelihood of positive organizational outcomes.

Yet there is a central paradox of women in leadership. The paradox is that despite women’s distinctive suitability for effective 21st-century leadership, they are advancing to senior management and leadership roles very slowly in almost every sector of business and industry.

This paradox is puzzling, particularly in the United States, in which companies perform relatively poorly in gender diversity as compared to other

Source: Grant Thornton
countries. A 2014 study conducted by Grant Thornton, an international professional services network, shows that among 45 nations, the U.S. ranks 37th in the proportion of women in senior management, with only 22% representation. The highest proportions of women with senior roles are in the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) where women comprise 30% of senior management positions, which is higher than the global average (24%). Russia has the highest proportion of women in senior management globally (43%) and the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Poland and Armenia) have 30% or more women in senior management than many well-established Western economies. Between 2012 and 2013, China doubled the number of senior management roles held by women from 25% to 51%. The common denominator is that these are rapidly growing economies where there is greater emphasis on workforce talent development and a significant need for full participation of women in the workforce. 

What explains this paradox? The factors influencing the number of women in leadership are complex and include societal, occupational, organizational, relational and individual factors. Certainly examples can still be found of “first-generation” gender bias — deliberate barriers to women’s advancement and overt discrimination. But more widespread is “second-generation” gender bias — unconscious, subtle, invisible and inadvertent barriers, as explained by researchers Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb in Harvard Business Review. These implicit biases include gendered career paths and professions, a lack of role models for and a critical mass of women leaders, women’s lower access to the networks, mentors and sponsors necessary for advancement, and double bind perceptions for women leaders. As Virginia Valian posits in her book “Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women”: “Very small differences in treatment can have major consequences as they accumulate … Like interest on capital, advantages accrue.  Like interest on debt, disadvantages accrue.”

What Works for Women at Work by John C. Williams & Rachel Dempsey
Unconscious, implicit bias results in four patterns which women face at work, as laid out in the book “What Works for Women at Work,” by Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey:

  • Prove it Again, and Again, and Again…Women often have to provide more and repeated evidence of competence than men in order to be seen as equally competent. 
  • The Tightrope. Women often find themselves walking a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent — or too masculine to be likable. 
  • The Maternal Wall. There’s a stereotype that women lose their work commitment and competence after they have children, which penalizes mothers who remain indisputably committed. 
  • Tug of War. Sometimes gender bias against women fuels conflict among women, particularly in traditionally masculine domains.

The paradox is complex and requires systemic solutions. Because of these challenges, it is even more important for women to invest in their personal leadership development. In my work with women to develop high-impact leadership skills for the 21st century workplace, I share research about how gender diversity in a workplace improves organizational culture and performance, and how they as leaders can help their organizations capitalize on those strengths, in order to equip and empower them to advance. 

But the solution must go far beyond individual women’s actions. Simplistic, ad hoc or piecemeal solutions cannot eradicate systematic, historical and widespread gender underrepresentation and inequities in the workplace. Systemic organizational change is needed — including greater reflexivity about everyday gender practices coupled with actions to transform organizational structures, processes, work practices, mental models and workplace cultures. The goal should be to enable equal employment, opportunities, treatment, evaluation, and valuing of women and men so that all employees can fully participate, contribute, and develop in their careers and enable their organizations to achieve their goals of effectiveness. We must address all of the factors that contribute to this problem — societal, occupational, organizational, relational and individual — and it must start with the CEO and be modeled by senior executives, requiring action at all organizational levels. The change has to be simultaneously top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out!

For instance, a single mentoring program, lactation room initiative or flex-hours policy cannot work to change the current system which advances few women (and slowly). By way of comparison, think of other organizational transformation efforts, such as Six Sigma or Lean Manufacturing. These aren’t implemented as one-off initiatives. To be successful, these change programs are embedded within the organizational mission and culture, and systematically executed. Resources, supports, and incentives are aligned. Champions and stewards are empowered. Complex interventions, measurement metrics, and reporting channels are created at all levels. Without these kinds of multi-level, multi-dimensional, and simultaneous interventions, gender equity in workplaces and the systematic advancement of women to senior leadership cannot be expedited.