How to enable gender diversity

With as many women as men in middle management positions and with women achieving more high-quality degrees than men, finally, after decades of waiting, one would think that we’d have diversity in boardrooms and senior management teams. Indeed, there are some hopeful signs that women are beginning to find their way out of the glass labyrinth of leadership.

In a recent empirical investigation of 1,167 female and male C-suite executives from different industries, we found no meaningful differences between the way men and women rate themselves on 12 leadership behaviors attributed to successful global leaders. (There were minor aberrations in some industries, with women, in fact, rating themselves higher on emotional intelligence and team building than men.)

This is an indication that women have the confidence in their abilities to make it to the top. And yet, only a handful of corporate board positions are currently held by women.

So, if we want to progress successful leadership for the contemporary complex and diverse business world, we need to enable gender diversity not just in the workforce but in the leadership domain and recognize
the disparity of leadership practices – adopted by men and women based on their unique strengths. I argue that leadership development programs have to play a role in promoting this diversity of leadership.

Trapped in the glass labyrinth

Leaders in our contemporary organizations are not diverse; the typical leader is still a male. The glass walls parting women from senior management and C-suite positions are upheld by second-generation bias, lack of sponsorship, smaller networks, challenges of work-life balance and the reality that many women still lack the confidence of men and are less likely to apply for leadership positions. These reasons go some way toward explaining why a gendered pyramid remains where women are a negligible percentage in the C-suite. If the described conditions do not change, the International Labor Office forecasts that women will not reach equal representation globally for another 200 years (80 years in developed countries).

As these conscious and unconscious biases are unlikely to change in a matter of decades, patterns must be broken. The gender quota for boardrooms is one example of how to increase gender -diversity in the C-suite. But, to create a long-term pipeline of women with the experience, confidence and know-how to lead from the top, we need to shatter the glass labyrinth, take a gradational approach and find ways to promote women into senior management positions and make sure we have women in executive education programs.

Processes that influence leadership

Leadership development has to play a role in encouraging current and future leaders to pursue organizational cultures which accept a multitude of approaches to leadership practices and an environment where men advance women and women advance men.

Companies with more women on the board are more successful in terms of return on investment, sales and invested capital. One of the reasons might be that women tend to have higher levels of emotional intelligence than men. Emotional intelligence is a core characteristic of successful leaders. So why are we shooting ourselves in the foot by not facilitating having more women on leadership positions and in senior leadership development programs? How can we make sure that biases and lack of sponsoring for women cease to exist?

Learning to engage in leadership through being a reflective observer and facilitator (rather than a micro-manager) enables leaders to become more effective individually and helps to create a work environment that acknowledges individuals for who they are, in all their complexity rather than in stereotypical roles. Reflective practices can be triggered in leadership development programs by using 360-degree feedback, for example.

This 360-degree feedback from peers, subordinates and family effectively holds up a mirror to the leader, showing them how they behave in different contexts and with different people, highlighting any inherent biases they may not even realize they possess.

Furthermore, leaders can learn that within groups (i.e., teams, departments, boards, organizations) various conscious and unconscious processes are at play. We all have conscious roles as line managers, sales representatives, etc., but also unconscious roles created and attributed to us based on past experiences and biases.

As the second-generation bias is still present, women are easily put into specific roles such as the administrator or caretaker. If leaders understand and keep watch of these processes, they can change the capacity of the team as a whole by drawing on a person’s individual rather than the stereotypical strengths (attributes which a particular woman might not, in fact, possess).

Beyond addressing conscious and unconscious processes in leadership development programs, we also need to find ways how business schools’ executive education programs can create more parity in senior leadership development programs. Professor Manfred Kets de Vries, who runs a senior leadership development program at INSEAD, notes: “I make a special effort to have women on Challenge of Leadership, not just to help women but to help men to become comfortable with -women, comfortable with the diversity of leadership practices. Also, the quality of decision-making is better in the group.”