Smashing Glass Ceilings from the Inside Out

Promoting gender equality in organisations isn't just a move towards democracy. It's good for business too

Published: Jul 12, 2012
Smashing Glass Ceilings from the Inside Out
Zandi Nkhata is the Director of Executive Education at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business in South Africa

Most democratic societies consider themselves – constitutionally at least – to be gender equal. But while legislation may not discriminate against women outright, real equality is still a long way off. The answer to greater empowerment and more profitable leadership may lie within women themselves.

Even in countries with liberal constitutions, progressive equality policies and high numbers of female parliamentarians, the data is still disconcerting: more women are unemployed than men; almost 1,5 times more women than men have no formal education; and in emerging markets, social issues like teenage pregnancy remains a significant threat to young women’s career prospects.

The formal education of women also does not appear to improve the picture much. According to statistics released by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics recently 23% of women achieve tertiary qualifications compared with 14% of men – and yet, women are paid 20% less than men in equivalent positions. The fields representing the biggest gaps between women’s and men’s earnings are finance, retail and sales, and, perhaps most surprisingly, the legal profession. Internationally, only countries which have passed legislation with mandatory employment quotas in the interests of female empowerment, such as Norway and Sweden, have more promising statistics. Norway boasts 44,2% female board members across all industries, while Sweden has set its target at 40% by 2015. In India the greatest disparity exists in workforce with only 25% of women participating and 80% of men.

The glass ceiling: resolutely shatterproof?

Recent statistics reveal that even in countries where the representation of women in middle management is on the rise, the percentage of women in senior positions remains virtually unchanged in recent years. In fact, women still fill less than 15% of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies and make up just 3,6% of CEOs worldwide.

Researchers have pinpointed various contributing factors, from cultural biases and assumptions about leadership in male-dominated organisations to the demands of family life. But, several studies also point to self-imposed limitations, which generally occur at an unconscious level, making them that much harder to combat. Gail Hackett and Nancy Betz of Arizona and Ohio State Universities respectively argue in their paper A self-efficacy approach to the career development of women, published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour: “[L]argely as a result of socialisation experiences, women lack strong expectations of personal efficacy in relationship to many career-related behaviors and, thus, fail to fully realise their capabilities and talents in career pursuits”. In short: even when legislation doesn’t actively hold women back, the damage is often already internalised. Disempowerment experienced at a social level eventually filters through to their self-image – where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Start your own change reaction
It follows, then, that disempowerment needs to be challenged through increased self-awareness and, at the risk of stating the obvious, the confidence to question the status quo. Dr Marjolijn Dijksterhuis, director of the Women in Leadership course at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business in South Africa, says change has to be tackled on multiple levels, and emphasises the importance of change at a psychological level. “In addition to legislation, change needs to happen at the organisational level – in other words, changes in structure and culture – and, finally, at the individual level,” she says. “In fact, one of the most powerful tools for leadership growth is personal inquiry: finding out why you lead in certain ways, what works well and what doesn’t, and what steps you personally need to take to take your leadership to the next level.”

Dijksterhuis also believes it is vitally important to offer women a non-discriminatory space in which they can hone their leadership capabilities and form a more realistic picture of their own strengths, challenges, responses and possibilities. And, although some may balk at the suggestion of segregation, progress may actually be best facilitated by women-only leadership education.

Women-only learning most beneficial
For Dijksterhuis’ alumni, a women-only environment has been hugely beneficial. “It is not about fostering an ‘us-them’ mentality,” she explains. “We simply see that same-gender groups generally find it easier to open up to each other, which is critical for a programme of this kind. It is designed to be a catalyst for personal leadership transformation and participants need to share their challenges and experiences to achieve the desired outcome. With an all-women programme, the learning is generally deeper than in co-ed environments.

“Some people are skeptical of women-only programmes, as they believe they only tackle gender-specific challenges and have a narrow focus – but we do not take the stance of tackling ‘women’s issues at work’. We never assume that all women share the same experiences,” Dijksterhuis adds.
In fact, far from lumping women’s professional experiences into one category, it is precisely the unconditional acceptance of difference in such an environment that can lead to deeper questioning and, in turn, more innovative leadership education, says Dijksterhuis. The expression of nuanced individual experiences in a judgement-free zone provides a broader platform for self-examination. It can provide female leaders with a catalyst for greater self-awareness – which in turn will drive change from the individual to a broader level.

Fahmeeda Khan, planning and scheduling manager at Chevron, agrees. As a graduate of the GSB’s Women in Leadership programme, she believes the self-awareness she has gained was the key to unlocking her capabilities as a leader. “It liberated me from certain mental models of the role of a woman in a male-dominated workplace,” she says. Khan’s colleague at Chevron, planning and pricing manager Nobuzwe Mbuyisa, says leadership education in an all-women environment enabled her to have a “much deeper” learning experience, which “went beyond tools or a simple instruction of ‘this is how we do things’”. The result was a stronger understanding of herself and others, as well as a greater appreciation of her own contributions and those of her team.

What’s good for the goose is also good for companies
But not all companies are as dedicated to gender equality as Chevron – although for the wellbeing of their business, they should be. According to the Corporate Research Foundation (CRF Institute), a global research company operating in 13 countries around the world, 74% of companies ranked in the latest Best Employers report are prioritising the empowerment of black and female leadership candidates. Furthermore, research is increasingly showing gender equality delivers rewards organisation-wide. It is vital to invest in women leaders, not just on a moral level, but for the benefit of businesses as a whole.

Ginka Toegel of Forbes Woman writes: “There has been a great deal of research which suggests the value of having gender-diverse management teams. For example, companies that have more than three women in management positions tend to have better return on equity and assets than do those with fewer women. They also tend to score higher on organisational effectiveness criteria.”

Moreover, Toegel adds, research shows that female leaders are more likely to demonstrate what is known as “communal” values: friendliness, support and a caring attitude rather than the agentic approach (assertiveness and dominance). And this communal style of leadership delivers great benefits to businesses. Research by the HeartMath Institute shows that fostering positive emotions in employees, through a caring and compassionate approach by leaders, delivers a measurably positive impact on staff performance. This includes greater achievements, creativity, problem-solving and decision-making skills, better memory, flexibility and overall health. Most importantly, HeartMath – like Dijksterhuis – advocates greater self-awareness and regular introspection as the starting point for this kind of beneficial leadership.

Empowering female leaders isn’t just ethically sound; Gender diversity expands a company’s leadership approach, increases resilience and grows businesses. The only question that remains is: can businesses afford not to invest in their women leaders?

Zandi Nkhata is the Director of Executive Education at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business in South Africa

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