Get on a Board (Even better - Become the Chair) - Advancing Diversity and Women in Australia

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The story appears to be a simple one. It is human nature for like to seek like.


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The vast majority of senior promotion decisions are made by men, who are more likely to seek people more like themselves than not. The research crystallises two key issues facing the Australian business community with respect to helping women reach their full potential.

Women in Leadership

We need widespread acceptance and implementation of different ways of working to help women and men effectively manage career-life transitions. And we need to create organisational environments where a spectrum of styles is valued, embraced and celebrated. The starting point for these two issues is vastly different. Although we still have a long way to go to make flexible career paths a genuine and accepted option, there is at least broad acknowledgement of the issue and a number of proven examples that organisations can use as models or case studies.

However, the issues of style and gender biases are much more challenging to confront and resolve. Equally, the solutions are unlikely to be straightforward or easy to implement. In contrast, the 22 per cent of women who believe style is not the primary problem have a much higher level of advocacy for their companies, giving an average NPS of 28 per cent. That suggests that those who identify the style issue as most relevant recognise the challenges associated with the necessary cultural change and are questioning the prospects of that journey ever really unfolding.

Is it true that women have different styles? What are those styles, and what are the consequences of different styles when promotion opportunities arise?

Women and men are viewed as equally effective at delivering outcomes for their organization. There is no gender difference in attributes such as making commercially sound decisions, managing high-pressure situations and delivering significant or transformative change. More important, these are the critical attributes that create value and drive results in organisations see Figure 4.

However, men and women agree that they achieve these outcomes with quite different styles. Simply put, women collaborate more and men promote their points of view more effectively. Both women and men tend to agree that women are more effective at building teams and relationships with colleagues as well as at balancing family commitments. For example, on the dimension of working effectively in a team, about one-third of women and men agree that women are more effective at it.

Both also tend to agree that men are more effective at speaking up at meetings and managing their emotions at work. Fifty-five per cent of women believe men are more effective at speaking up in leadership meetings, whilst only 5 per cent of men are likely to see a woman being more effective at it. Men do not see differences in style as an issue that holds women back professionally. However, men tend not to recognise that having a different style is something that uniquely affects women.

Men believe style affects both genders with similar frequency and, in fact, say they are twice as likely as women to be overlooked for a promotion because of differences in their leadership or interpersonal styles see Figure 5. However, men readily acknowledge the negative career consequences for women with competing family priorities and agree that it affects women more frequently than it does men, by two to four times. Women agree wholeheartedly with that. That both women and men regard the differences in style as career inhibitors for their respective genders highlights a much deeper issue around how diversity of all types is valued in organisations.

Clearly, neither women nor men feel that style differences by either gender are embraced by their organisations. Women do feel, however, that a lack of acceptance of various styles differentially affects them. That apparent gap in perceptions underlines the difficulty in getting organisations to acknowledge and tackle the complex topic of valuing diverse leadership styles. If women approach their work with a different style from most men, and if men in leadership prefer working with others whose style is similar to their own, it becomes challenging for a woman to convince her superior that she is the right person for the promotion.

That is the heart of gender bias and makes it difficult for true meritocracy to exist. Even with a strong, acknowledged business case for diversity, women find it tough to break through these issues on their own.

Why Board Gender Diversity & Women Corporate Directors Are Great For Business

To better understand how differences in style influence perceptions of leadership capability, we asked survey respondents to evaluate their own leadership effectiveness, as well as that of their female and male colleagues. Our research shows that women are perceived to be less effective at the leadership attributes that are most emphasised and rewarded by organisations. Applying a research approach used by Catalyst 9 , we asked respondents to rank the 10 leadership attributes in the order that their organisations emphasise and reward.

Men and women clearly agree that the four highest ranking attributes of leadership are problem solving, influencing, team building and networking see Figure 6. When ranking themselves on the same leadership attributes, women confirm one of the most worrying aspects of their style. Women undersell their capabilities, even though they are deemed to be equally as effective as men at delivering value for their organisations. We suspect the latter. Even worse, men completely agree with women see Figure 7.


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  • Men are twice as likely to rank other men over women as being highly effective problem solvers. It is also interesting that women also rank other women as less effective problem solvers. It is puzzling that women rate poorly on problem solving when men and women are believed to be equally capable at delivering outcomes. We suspect that women approach problem solving in a different way, through collaborating and teaming, which is less likely to garner individual recognition and acceptance.

    In contrast, women are viewed as being stronger in the high emotional quotient EQ skills, such as consulting, rewarding, supporting and mentoring, by both men and women, but these are the leadership attributes that tend to be less overtly recognised and rewarded by organisations. The bottom line is clear: Men and women are different, but both deliver on the job and make strong leaders.

    In fact, the balance created by men and women working together is powerful. How can we create an environment in corporate Australia that acknowledges and removes the unintended bias embedded in the recruitment, promotion and appointment processes, and actively seeks to build cultures that celebrate different leadership styles?

    The call to action is clear: We must create environments that embrace a spectrum of styles and working models. Without that, organisations will continue to lose potential and existing female leaders from their talent pipelines and miss the opportunity to reap the rewards of having a diverse leadership team. It will require organisations to value and promote diversity in their executive teams.

    It will also require widespread acceptance and implementation of flexible career paths to help women manage critical life events effectively, whilst still moving ahead in their careers.


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    • However, none of this will be possible without sustained and visible leadership commitment and cultural change, starting with the Board and CEO. Raise awareness and build understanding. It is clear that men and women have differing views on the issues. For organisations that are just beginning to tackle this issue, the journey should start with raising awareness and creating a common understanding of the importance of diversity and both the practical and the cultural issues which must be tackled.

      Awareness alone will not be enough to solve these problems, but it is a necessary first step. Having the courage to surface and sensitively navigate the topic of style differences is a part of this process. If the existence of gender bias is not widely understood, it can be addressed by undertaking a diagnostic to understand how leadership ability is defined within the organisation and how that definition may create both conscious and unconscious biases.

      Cultural change can be initiated through a process of education, communication and training. This could include educating employees about the business case for diversity, helping them recognise stereotyping and showcasing successes of women leaders, especially their ability to be successful with a range of styles.

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      How to get more women in the boardroom

      Define what great leadership looks like and how you can strengthen diversity at the top. Having a clear and gender neutral definition of what good leadership looks like is important. It creates a common frame of reference and a common language for talking about the repertoire of leadership attributes that are required in an effective executive team. A clear definition also allows organisations to acknowledge that styles differ and creates the opportunity to have an open dialogue about genuine strengths and weaknesses of various leadership candidates.

      That is a necessary screen to ensure promotions are not open to bias. Defining the model for good leadership can be powerful. It enables chairs and CEOs to evaluate the collective strengths and weaknesses across the talent pipeline and in executive teams, and to identify where opportunities exist to increase leadership diversity and raise the quality of collective decision making. Seek to remove structural biases and make promotions more meritocratic.

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      Once a clear definition of good leadership is in place, CEOs should initiate systematic reviews of promotion and succession practices to ensure that they are not tainted by bias of any sort, including gender bias. This involves ensuring that there are objective criteria and unbiased evaluation and decision-making processes. For example, organisations could remove gender bias in the evaluation of candidates for promotion by ensuring that there is diversity in the decision makers; the leadership attributes and assessment criteria are objective and explicit; and there is a requirement to field a diverse range of candidates.