Taking our lead from women and what it means that we’re talking about this in April
As Women’s History Month takes a bow, it may be tempting to commemorate a month celebrating the achievements of women, and the progress society has made by embracing those achievements, with a round of high fives and knowing nods.
Good work. Well done. See you next year.
No doubt progress has been made. What began as International Women’s Day in 1909 — at a meeting of socialists and suffragettes in Manhattan — was being celebrated by more than 17 countries just two years later. And though the United States didn’t come around to the notion until the United Nations began sponsoring it in 1975, the event was quickly expanded to a week in 1977 as Women’s History Week. A decade later, Congress expanded it again — as Women’s History Month.
Now every March, people set aside a not-insignificant chunk of the year to extol the achievements of great women and celebrate the ever-increasing openness of our societies.
WOMEN CHANGE THE WAY COMPANIES THINK
Unsurprisingly, the impact of women in leadership roles has been high up in those discussions. Every year, we see the ranks of female executives increase, as does the evidence that taking our lead from women is rewarded with measurable gains in most of the important business metrics.
Research shows that organizations with a higher percentage of women in senior positions tend to be more profitable, more socially responsible, and provide safer, higher-quality experiences for customers and stakeholders. These are substantial indicators of inspired leadership, especially in a time when companies must struggle to balance the imperatives of profit and growth against those of governance, society and the environment.
The influence of women in the C-suite seems to not be constrained to top-down directives, either. The changes appear to be ones of organizational culture as well. These firms exhibit more openness to change, while showing more restraint in risk-taking behavior. This is noticeably reflected even at the level of corporate communications, where terms associated with risk, like “bold” and “competitive,” decreased in proportion to an increase in more transformational ones, like “launch” and “create.” The shift is further paralleled by a trend of investment away from M&A and towards R&D, from knowledge-buying strategies to knowledge-building ones.
Such culture shifts aren’t evident across all companies with a woman in an executive role. Analysis has shown that the impact of female executives is massively diminished if they are entering an organization with no other women in leadership. On the flip side, when women ascended to leadership roles as part of a cohort of other female executives, the impact was greatly amplified.
It should come as no surprise that the benefits of female leaders are too easily neutralized if they remain an exception to the status quo — inside an organization and at large. As with most things, there is strength in numbers.
WHY ARE WOMEN IN THE C-SUITE SO IMPACTFUL?
When it comes to isolating the qualities and experiences that set female executive leaders apart from their male counterparts, we can make a few hypotheses.
In general, a woman’s path to leadership is marked by a course that might make them more eager to court change while avoiding risk. For a woman, the ascent up the ranks of the corporate hierarchy is often a tightrope walk. Her position as an executive leader is itself (sadly) evidence of a challenge to the status quo. Innovation is part of that DNA. At the same time, the added hyper-visibility of their role — as members of an underrepresented group — increases the professional risk of making mistakes. And so, naturally, they become adept at balancing the benefits of innovative proposals against the risks of potential failure.
Research also indicates that female executives are less inclined to feel constrained by tradition — their very presence flouts it. This seems to have a knock-on effect, increasing receptiveness to change in others around them. As more women find positions within executive teams, it promises to encourage more open-mindedness across the organization.
A DANGEROUS BACKSLIDE FOR EQUITY
Shortly after the pandemic hit, the World Economic Forum estimated that it would take approximately another 100 years to achieve gender equality globally. A year later, they had revised their estimate for closing the gender gap to 136 years.
Despite significant gains over the last decade, the representation of women in senior management positions continues to hover around 30 percent. Even within this segment, female executive leaders tend to be overrepresented in support functions like administration and underrepresented in the traditional CEO pipelines like research and development.
The pandemic has seen a wave of women leaving the workforce to manage leadership vacuums at home. Over 54 million women around the world have left the workforce, almost 90 percent of whom exited the labor force completely. And while few of those resignations have occurred at the C-suite level, we can’t ignore that this time has affected women on an outsized scale. If we’re serious about gender equity, our efforts will need to be equally outsized to meet the challenge.
Society is poorer for this backward-sliding trend. Forward-looking organizations would do well to pioneer programs that tilt the scale back in the other direction. The most impactful measures would be ones that provide support and flexibility around child and family care. Despite more enlightened times, these responsibilities still fall disproportionately on women. Companies need to make room for women’s other roles and give them the resources they need to balance them.
This would require inspired organizational restructuring around hybrid/flexwork schemes. Such efforts would need to be supported by policies that counteract the hierarchical biases against flex workers — that shut them out of promotions and high profile projects.
Executives and managers can be taught to identify their own unconscious biases in these areas, helping them to recognize value and talent in new, more agile ways. We can also reframe how we measure productivity, even changing the language surrounding KPIs.
Providing employees with assisted living and daycare programs for their dependents would also go a long way. That, and policies that actively encourage men to take parental leave, would not only shift the paradigm but also anticipate the shifting priorities of an increasingly Millennial and Gen Z workforce.
The family-friendliness of organizations was already a priority with workers before the pandemic. Now it has taken on existential import, with one study showing that 90% of those polled would consider leaving their current companies for ones that provide more family-friendly support.
BEYOND THE GLASS CEILING, BEYOND WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH
There’s no denying that celebratory events like Women’s History Month help to focus us on important issues, shine a light on subjects that are undeniably worthy of attention. But there’s also a risk in tying these sorts of things to bookended timelines, as if an article like this is somehow inappropriate in April — too late to be impactful or current.
Let’s not forget that the history of events celebrating women’s achievements has marched in lock step with denying women their rights. International Women’s Day, for all that it experienced wide recognition, preceded women being allowed to vote by a decade or more. The introduction of Women’s History Month in the United States coincided with a series of failed attempts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (only recently being revisited now — a half century later). Recognition is fine and dandy but rights are inalienable.
Despite the regressive talent trends of the last two years, there has never been a better time to be a woman in the workforce, whether entering it or rising to its highest echelons. Women have more upward mobility, more opportunities to lead, and are better compensated than at any other time in history. And yet, we’re still a long way from deserving the pats on the back and kudos we aspire to.
Better. Not good enough.
So let’s agree that Women’s History Month isn’t an end in itself, some page on the calendar to tear away and recycle for another year.
Instead, let’s commit to marking its end as the beginning of something truly historic — building a lasting framework to facilitate women’s impact into the next century and beyond.
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