If you ask around you what people understand by leadership and what characterises a good leader, you will hear a different answer every time. This is quite normal as everyone has his or her own idea of what makes a good leader. Summing them up, a common meaning could be: Leaders are people who know how to achieve goals and inspire people along the way.
So, why are there so few women leaders?
Today, when women start their careers in business and other professions, it is with the same level of intelligence, education, and commitment as men.
At entry-level, more than half of an organisation’s employees are female. But when you look at each successive level going up the career ladder of the organisation, the number of women steadily falls off.
What’s wrong? Around the world, it is recognised that the higher the women climb up the corporate ladder, the more they disappear. Of course, statistics vary depending on regions and cultural situations, but in general, sadly, we can see a consistent pattern. Only 1 in 5 firms worldwide have a female CEO or top manager![i]
Is it a skill problem?
When looking at senior female managers, studies and experts all acknowledge women’s excellence in both efficiency and recognised competence in leadership.
Women leaders seem also to have a very particular capacity to develop highly important competencies, such as developing others, inspiring and motivating others, building relationships, collaboration and teamwork. Women also tend to have other specific abilities such as for taking initiative, displaying integrity and honesty, and driving for results. These competencies highlighted in studies show that women are actually seen as more effective in getting things done, being role models and delivering results.
So where is the gap?
More and more experts tend to agree that current work policies and practices, which have been around for years, favour the mismatch between how women are perceived compared to the qualities that people tend to associate with male leaders.
Those organisational structures and work practices were indeed designed long ago by men to respond to men’s lives and development – as the only breadwinner of the family. Let’s remember that at that time women only represented a very small percentage of the workforce.
Since then, society has also changed. Technology and modern tools created an accelerated path to competitiveness, speeding up decision-making processes and generating increased stress for leaders.
Leadership education programmes and traditional mentoring paths are certainly still necessary and very important, but clearly not sufficient.
What is known as ‘work-life balance’ is certainly a myth. Until we re-address the question as a societal issue at large and revisit our approach to work – and to leadership – society will continue to lack women leaders.