The Missing Half of Leadership

Voluntary compliance, backed by peer pressure, will boost the number of women in executive suites and boardrooms

The essentials

After decades of research across many countries, women have been shown to be more likely than men to display transformational and participative leadership, behaviours that are linked to more positive organizational outcomes. Yet women are significantly less likely than men to attain meaningful leadership positions, says Julian Barling, Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen's School of Business, and author of The Science of Leadership. "We can no longer limit ourselves to looking at the same old groups while hoping for demographically different outcomes. Successful organizations voluntarily choose to create environments that respect, reward, develop, and promote male and female leaders, creating a larger and richer pool of talent from which to draw their future leadership."

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Women and leadership is a fascinating and important issue for organizations and society, and it is full of paradoxes. Here is one: After decades of research across many different countries, we know that women as a group are somewhat more likely than men as a group to display transformational, democratic, and participative leadership. In contrast, men as a group are somewhat more likely to display autocratic or laissez-faire leadership than women. What this means is that women as a group are somewhat more likely than men as a group to display the very leadership behaviours that are linked with more positive outcomes. 

Despite all these findings, women are significantly less likely than men to obtain meaningful leadership positions  in organizations. Remarkably in Canada and the U.S., only five percent of the top 500 companies have a female CEO. Catalyst, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in business, estimates that women held 14 percent of senior corporate positions in Canada in 2002. Eleven years later, that figure was 18 percent. That’s an increase of 0.4 percent a year, enough to get us to gender parity by the turn of the century. 

Extending this to members of boards of governance, Catalyst estimates that in Canada in 2013, only about 14 percent of board seats were occupied by women. The depth of this problem becomes even more clear when we realize that only three percent of all board positions are held by women of colour and only four percent of board chair positions are occupied by women.

What about gender representation in the political realm? In Canada, 76 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons are held by women. At just under 25 percent, that is the highest proportion in Canada’s history. In the U.S., no more than 19 percent of Members of Congress and 20 percent of Members of the Senate are women. We lag behind the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, France, Rwanda, Cuba, Iceland, Tanzania, Burundi, and United Arab Emirates. 

Problem? What Problem?

Given this, you must think there is a groundswell of support demanding immediate change. As Maggie Wilderotter, chairman and CEO of Frontier Communications, said recently, “The Catalyst 2013 census showing the continued shortage of women in America’s C-suites and board of directors is a call to action.” 

Well, not so much. A recent survey of senior Canadian executives included two revealing questions. First they were asked, How concerned are you about the number of women on boards and in senior management at Canadian corporations? Fifty-eight percent said they were either not at all or not very concerned. They were then asked a more specific question: Are you satisfied with the number of women in your company’s executive ranks? Fully 64 percent said they were satisfied. 

Results from the survey of 400 Canadian executives, conducted by Environics for Queen’s School of Business, cast further light on this issue. Seventy percent of the executives surveyed significantly overestimated the number of corporate board members who were women. They were then given the correct information, and upon being told that no more than 15 percent of corporate board members in Canada are women, nearly two-thirds of the respondents opposed any kind of mandatory quotas to change the situation.  

It is not just an issue of fairness, as important that it is. It is an issue that affects organizations in visible and less visible ways. It is an issue of opportunity missed and wasted. What do young female schoolchildren learn when they dream about the future? They see a world in which the odds are stacked against them rising to the top. And how might this affect their motivation to become leaders in the future? A fascinating study from the University of Waterloo showed that when young female undergraduates were subtly reminded of gender stereotypes, they were substantially less interested in assuming a leadership role. But when these same female undergraduates were explicitly told there were no gender differences in leadership effectiveness, they were as interested in assuming a leadership role as their male counterparts.

When young female undergraduates were subtly reminded of gender stereotypes, they were substantially less interested in assuming a leadership role

Consider the case of Maggie Wilderotter, chairman and CEO of Frontier Communications. Wilderotter is one of the four Sullivan sisters who achieved great success in the business world. One of her sisters is Colleen Bastkowski who has a regional vice-president of Expedia after holding the position of director of sales at AT&T, where she doubled productivity and revenue growth. Their baby sister is Andrea Doelling, who was senior vice-president at AT&T Wireless. The eldest sister is Denise Morrison, who was the CEO and president of Campbell Soup. Did the four Sullivan sisters win the genetic sweepstakes? The sisters don’t think so. They recall the powerful influence of their parents. Their discussions invariably revolved around business and leadership and the parents’ determination that if the children had dreams, the dreams would be met with workable business plans. Their mother would insist that “ambition is part of being feminine.”  Nothing in the Sullivans’ childhood experiences could be further from the continual reminder to young girls that their opportunities for leadership are limited. 

Consider, too, a large-scale and innovative research study in India that involved 500 villages. It showed that young girls who had been consistently exposed to a female head of the village council were more motivated to stay in school longer and more interested in pursuing a career. As well, both their mothers and fathers showed higher aspirations for their daughters if they lived in a village with a female head of the council. For me, the most remarkable finding from this study was that fathers were more interested in daughters assuming leadership positions.

There are so many prescriptions for change, from “leaning in” through legislation. All of them seem to attract unthoughtful criticism, often not because of rigorous evaluation of the particular method but because of the fear they might work.

Can Naming and Shaming Turn the Tide?

What initiatives might we expect to see in the future? I think we’re likely to see initiatives that revolve around the notion of voluntary compliance. As one example, Catalyst just started an intriguing program in Canada inviting all organizations to become signatories to the Catalyst Accord, a public commitment to ensure that 25 percent of all board seats are held by women by 2017. Peer pressure may well ensure the initiative will be successful because Catalyst has started to place ads in major newspapers naming signatories to the accord. So with Royal Bank, Bank of Montreal, CIBC, Scotiabank, and HSBC all having signed the accord, can TD be far behind? 

With organizations desperately seeking the next generation of high performance leaders, we can no longer limit ourselves to keep on looking to the same old groups while hoping for demographically different outcomes. Successful organizations will be those that voluntary choose to create environments that respect, reward, develop,  and promote male and female leaders, creating a larger and richer pool of talent from which to draw their future leadership. These are the organizations that attract and retain high-quality female leaders. 

The time for debate about gender and leadership is over. Both social and organizational functioning demand that action be taken now.

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