Why We’re Not There Yet: Changing the Leadership System

Young business womanBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

On paper, began Linda Basch, President of the National Council for Research on Women, the numbers look good. Women earn 57% of Bachelor’s degrees, and a larger percentage of Master’s degrees. One third of business owners are women – the fastest growing group of business owners, in fact. Women control half of the wealth in the US, and 65% of consumer spending.

Yet, said Basch, “The glass ceiling remains virtually shatterproof. We’ve reached stasis in too many areas.”

Yesterday, the National Council for Research on Women, along with the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, Catalyst, Demos, Women’s Forum, Inc., and Women 4 Citi hosted “The Power of Women’s Leadership” to explore the lack of women in leadership positions, why we need them there, and how to fix it.

The panel discussion featured Joanna Barsh, Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company and co-author of How Remarkable Women Lead and Linda Tarr-Whelan, Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow and author of Women Lead the Way, and was moderated by Carol Jenkins, Founding President of the Women’s Media Center.

Basch pointed out, the lack of women in positions of leadership is getting another look. “Women are increasingly seen as part of the solution to [economic and social] challenges.”

As Tarr-Whelan explained, “I was at the Beijing conference and I heard leaders of countries say ‘we have to have women leaders because it will advance our countries. It was not just about justice.” She continued, “[They believed] society could be better if we have women in leadership.”

Down to Business: Why Women’s Leadership Can Make a Difference

Tarr-Whelan is an enthusiastic proponent of the critical mass idea – the “30% solution strategy.” An individual woman leader is vulnerable. But once women make up at least 30% of leadership, the conversation changes. “Women’s voices could be heard and heeded,” she explained. “There’s a real sense that that does make a difference in practical terms.

What makes women’s leadership different than men’s? Barsh explained the differences she found between genders in doing the research for her book. She explained, “Women are driven in ways that are very difficult to find in men.”

Her research (120 hours of interviews with women across the world) revealed, she said, that women are driven by meaning, they are more likely to experience emotional extremes, they network differently, they are more risk adverse, and, women who have children and elderly parents at home “just do more work.”

She continued, “These differences can be a strength. How do we each unlock this potential and step up to be the leaders we were destined to be?”

Reasons Behind the Plateau

In fact, however, recent research shows that the previously increasing number of women in leadership seems to have hit a plateau. Why?

Citing the 2009 McKinsey report Women Matter, Barsh said, “Only 28% of companies surveyed thought diversity, specifically gender diversity, mattered [in the top 10% of things affecting their company]. 48% of companies didn’t think it was a priority at all.”

Tarr-Whelan continued, “I do think the metrics are terribly important.” Citing World Economic Forum numbers on gender equality, Whelan said, “The US fairs very poorly. It goes between 27th and 31st.” She said, “But CEOs – men CEOs – are starting to get it. Seeing this as a social and a business issue and not a women’s issue is where we’re starting to see progress.”

For example, she cited the directive from the head of Deutsche Telekom that women must hold 30% of the company’s leadership positions in the next 3 years. “And at the World Bank, Zoellick has set his goal at 50%.”

“This is not a women’s issue – if you don’t take anything else home with you today!” Tarr-Whelan continued, “It’s heard as us versus them, it’s heard as rights. It’s not heard as ‘we’ve got all the talent that is missing.’”

Overcoming Structural Office (Gender) Politics

Structural gender politics in the office create inequities as well. For example, Barsch discussed the avoidance of hiring women for leadership positions out of the fear they might fail. “Let women fail,” she said. “Men are failing all the time! It’s unnatural to assume one gender is perfect when the other gender is so obviously imperfect.”

Barsh also explained that women need sponsors at the top. She explained that a sponsor is like a sky diving instructor, who pushes you through the door of the airplane when you’re not sure if you should jump, and then has the safety net out for you on the ground.

Tarr-Whelan said, “Some of the men who could be good sponsors have never been asked.” She recalled her work at the UN when Kofi Annan would frequently push women on his staff to apply for top positions.

There are structural issues at stake too. Jenkins mentioned, “the infamous pipeline, which is now swelling with women who could move up.” But it’s not so simple, she explained. For CEO positions, you need to be in a position that “deals with money and deals with people. If you’re not in a position that deals with people or money, you will not be CEO.” She explained, “Women always want to be the anchor or the reporter. They don’t want to be the news director.”

“Having women in the system doesn’t matter at all.” The important question, she said, is “Do they have a line position they can move up in?”

Tarr-Whelan agreed that the structural issues at stake need a second look. “There’s a complacency among women that we’re doing fine. That ‘if I’m not there yet, then there’s something wrong with me.’”

The panelists make an important point – it’s not women who need to change, and it’s not the men either. When the structure of the system works against women, it works against everybody.