The IDG Blog

Inspiring Emerging Women Leaders: Why Closing the Gender Gap is a Business Imperative

Recent studies in the UK, the USA and the Middle East show that whilst there is still a massive disparity in the number of male and female leaders in C-suite roles, the gender gap is closing… albeit slowly. This makes the development of female leadership skills even more important.

by Matthew Moore

This week there was fantastic news for female leaders and supporters of diversity and inclusion in the workplace when one of the UK’s biggest and most respected retail brands, John Lewis, appointed the first female CEO in their 152 year history. Paula Nickolds, who joined the company as a graduate 22 years ago and rose steadily up the ranks, will take up the role in January 2017. As buying and brand director she was responsible for the company’s famous Christmas ad campaigns before taking up her current position of Commercial Director.

However, Nickolds is one of a only very select group of women who have been deemed to have the leadership skills to be a CEO of a large brand. In the UK, there are only a handful of women in comparable roles. In the US, a recent McKinsey study found that women are still hugely under-represented at every level, with only 19% in C-suite positions, 29% at vice-president level and 46% at entry-level. (Source: 2016 LeanIn.Org and McKinsey: Women in the Workplace study). In the Middle East, Hawkamah, a corporate governance organisation for the MENA region, found that the average percentage of women on boards of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) listed companies is a mere 1.5 per cent.

Similarly, whilst some studies claim that the gender gap between pay and promotion is closing, others point out that it will still take 170 years for the gap to actually close.

The paucity of female leaders in top jobs is not only shocking from a social and ethical standpoint; it is short-sighted and potentially damaging from a business aspect as well. Globally, there are close to a billion women who are joining the marketplace. These women – known as “The Third Billion” because they will have as big an impact on the market as the emergence of China and India – were previously disenfranchised, suppressed or under-utilised. Their emergence will not only create new markets, it creates new opportunities for innovation.

An influential leader speaking at a meeting

This was recognised recently in Australia with the creation of the Leadership Shadow model. Developed by the Chief Executive Women (CEW) Group in partnership with the Male Champions of Change (MCC), it guides leaders on the issue of gender diversity and provides them with a framework for developing female talent specifically with regard to women leadership skills.

The model looks at the shadow individuals cast on organisations, on their people, teams and departments, and recognises that to make a difference in leadership, we need to understand our own impact. It is often a challenge to see our own shadow, the shape of it, the clarity of it and its’ reach.

There are four main constituents to our personal Leadership Shadow:

  1. What We Say.
  2. How We Act.
  3. What We Prioritise.
  4. What We Measure.

Simon Rothery, CEO of Goldman Sachs, said that “The Leadership Shadow is a simple but effective means of helping every leader become a champion of gender diversity. It helps them think through how they can become the leader they need to be and bring about real change in an organisation.”

The Leadership Shadow provides a practical model, but to succeed it must be used in the correct business context, which is providing a culture within which aspiring women leaders are given the opportunity to thrive and succeed. For that culture to be effectively put in place, it is obvious that it needs as much male support as female.

The business need is there, not only in the emergence of the Third Billion, but also in the simple imperative that a greater diversity of experience and approaches provides an organisation with the flexibility and resources to anticipate the needs and wants of a greater pool of customers. Another McKinsey study, this one of GCC companies, found that “nearly two-thirds of survey respondents indicated that the topic of women in leadership was on their organizations’ strategic agendas.”

Undoubtedly, nurturing and promoting more female leaders like Paula Nickolds is merely the first step, but it is a vital one.

Our new programme, Aspiring Women Leaders, engages with these issues and provides insight to the skills and competencies required to become a female leader. It will include a guide to the Leadership Shadow and how it can be utilised for personal professional growth, as well other practical tools and guidance.

The first programme will be run over November 11th – 12th in Amman, Jordan, with other locations including the UK and India set to follow. Find out more information here, where you can also book your place and register your interest for other programmes.

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