What Will It Take to Achieve Gender Equality in Leadership?

SUMMING UP James Heskett's readers question the meaning of "gender equality" and ponder ways to give women access to the same management opportunities as men.
by James Heskett

Are Investors the Ultimate Antidote to Gender Inequality in Leadership?

Once respondents came to terms with my use of “gender equality” in the title of this month’s column they described several ways in which it might be achieved in our discussion of gender inequality in leadership. But it was not easy for some, possibly because of my use of the term “equality” vs. parity or some other concept. Words are important.

For example, Hugh Quick asked, “Why does anyone want gender equality?” JW2 commented that the column “Begs the question if equality is the right goal.” Phil expanded on this when he said, “The very act of trying to attain gender equality portends to assume that is a positive goal. My concern is not equality but quality. Man or woman, we as individuals and organizations need to rip away all the barriers that lie within all of us and look toward having the best people doing the job… Let the numbers fall where they may. You may find that people achieving their dreams has no link with gender equality.”

For others, “having the best people doing the job” may have been seen as having a subjective quality to it, based in part on the biases of those choosing the “best people.” Their comments concentrated on ways of getting women into positions with the power to hire and promote.

Seena Sharp suggested that “Gender equality will be achieved when both women AND men participate in making it happen… Women need to display leadership, confidence, openness, and a vision. Men’s roles are totally different. They control access to leadership positions, yet those positions are often filled by those most familiar—that is, those who most resemble men.” She went on to suggest that as male leaders observe their daughters being shut out of leadership positions, it opens their minds to the issue and influences their own hiring and promotion decisions. Peter Bowie underlined the point by saying, “Equal opportunity to be ‘selected’ is one of the keys to the solution.”

A direct appeal to the economic interests of investors hoping to benefit from a larger cadre of women in leadership was the gist of several comments. Observing that the desire to make fortunes is a powerful motivator, Paul wrote that "perhaps when Wall Street has more examples of innovative women, then there will be less focus on gender, which might make it easier for women to realize their potential.” Share of12trillion put it more succinctly: “Communicate to people the exact additional amount they’d be earning per capita if everyone behaved differently.”

Are investors the ultimate antidote to gender inequality in leadership? What do YOU think?

Original Column

A recent study concluded that gender inequality is costing the global economy $12 trillion annually, with North America accounting for 25 percent of that total followed by China’s 20-plus percent.

If diversity and gender equality have so much potential for improving business, why don’t we see more of it faster? What will be necessary to make it happen?

There are several kinds of responses to this question. The first is the “do it yourself” response, characterized by Sheryl Sandberg’s now-famous argument in her book, Lean In. Among other things, she challenges women to change their behaviors, to bolster their self-confidence and ambition, and become better job and wage negotiators while choosing a partner who can help share the load of a career.

The work that Amy Cuddy has, as of this date, shared with more than 28 million viewers on TEDTalks provides nuts and bolts ideas about how to do this through specific behaviors designed to convey the notion of power.

The second type of response might be termed the “get help” strategy. It plays down the idea of “super-women” as the answer to the problem. In a new book, Anne Marie Slaughter, the author of the widely-discussed Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” suggests that the necessary response goes far beyond a woman’s behavior. It will require broad-based efforts to change the mind-set and support systems for both men and women.

A third response puts forth the notion that the reason there is gender inequality can be linked to the question of who traditionally has held power. Another McKinsey study found that high levels of gender equality, measured on several societal dimensions across countries, are associated with such things as better female performance on math tests, better performance of women’s FIFA soccer teams (adjusted for population size and per-capita GDP), how well women negotiate for jobs and compensation, and even higher rates of infidelity for women, approaching those for men.

So greater gender parity itself can affect behavior and success rates for women? Not so fast. Studies have shown that expectations held by those in power for men and women are different. Women who project power—who negotiate for salary, for exampleare more frequently punished while men doing the same thing are more frequently rewarded. This is true when either a man or woman boss is in power.

How can these differing expectations for men and women be changed? Will it require “outside” interventions, such as those provided by new corporate policies, behavior measurement, rewards, and—in spite of admonitions from legal counselthe publication of gender-specific results (hiring, staffing, compensation)? Does government have a role to play? If so, what?

What will it take to achieve gender equality in leadership? What do you think?

To read more:

Amy Cuddy, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, TED talk, TEDGlobal, June, 2012.

Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, It’s good to be the Queen … but it’s easier being the King, McKinsey Insights & Publications, October 2015.

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).

Anne Marie Slaughter, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, The Atlantic, July/August, 2012.

Jonathan Woetzel, et. al., How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth, McKinsey Insights & Publications, September 2015, accessed on www.mckinsey.com/insights.

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