THE BLOG

Are Women Missing a Trick?

15/03/2013 12:03 GMT | Updated 14/05/2013 10:12 BST

Depending on what you read, you may think women are still making no progress or painfully slow progress. So did last week's celebration of International Women's Day smack of hollow tokenism, or was it evidence that the debate is raging more loudly than ever? Because it already seems as if we have gone back to 'business as usual', with more bad news for aspiring women.

It would be trite to blame any lack of progress on a single issue - it's much more complicated than that. But perhaps the secret is not to dwell too much on these obstacles, but to create a different future. Rather than 'leaning in', perhaps we should focus on breaking out to become catalysts of positive change.

In a world where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are now the norm, are women missing a trick? Instead of playing catch-up in existing corporate structures, why not create newer, more sustainable ones? Company directors today can be hampered by short-termism and unable - or unwilling - to see what's coming around the corner. But women who look to the future - to the 'five forces' influencing global business and life - can harness these megatrends to carve out their own place in the world.

This presents a real opportunity for women to get ahead, making emerging leadership priorities such as transparency, resilience and customer expectation their home-ground. This is where they can shine. History is already littered with pioneering women (Honor Fell and Grace Hopper, for example), even if many go unsung.

There are plenty of modern day models, too, who are re-shaping industries or tackling social issues through 'triple-bottom-line' start-ups. In emerging markets, women's networks are already bringing food and jobs to poor communities.

There's never been a better time. Capitalism's crisis is, in many ways, an opportunity for women to grab the mantle. We are now working in a world where change is relentless and constant, where careers are increasingly non-linear and organisations and industries are in upheaval.

In complex situations, where not everything is in a straight line, so-called 'feminine' traits and skills come to the fore. At the risk of falling into stereotypes, women are often able to deal with complexity more easily than men.

There will still be obstacles -- structural and systemic barriers can block women as they rise through certain industries. Media stereotypes send mixed messages: witness how quickly Marissa Mayer has moved from 'girl geek' role model to betrayer of the sisterhood.

Some of this is down to women themselves: having the confidence to embrace their 'outsider' status as a benefit, not a drawback, may mean quieting what Arianna Huffington has called "the obnoxious roommate living in your head". It takes planning - not simply allowing career decisions to happen to us - and some hard choices. What compromises are we willing to make - because at some point, this question will arise, however equitable the child-care arrangements are at home. And when do we begin thinking about these things- at secondary school, at university?

Women in positions of power can and should help, and role models are essential. But not everyone can be Sheryl Sandberg, or Nicola Horlick: we need to seek out and promote role models from a wider ethnic and economic pool.

A younger generation of women will want to forge their own paths. Mine was the generation that was told it could 'have it all'. My daughter's generation measures success differently and needs role models who espouse the environmental and social issues that matter to them.

There's a real opportunity now for women to promote collegiate working, creating alumni among women. We need serious and active support networks by company, by sector, by industry. These can be used to share best practice and challenge old thinking. They may also include men. A one-size-fits-all solution won't address such a complex problem. We need to offer tangible and practical help to each other. And we shouldn't wait for someone 'more qualified' to take the lead.