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Vocal Heroes: The Year for Women in Leadership

18/12/2014 06:32 | Updated 16 February 2015

2014-12-17-Malala.jpg

The past year has been one of extremes when it comes to women in leadership. We've had some 'vocal heroes' -- most notably Malala Yousafzai, but also Emma Watson promoting the He for She campaign, GM's unflappable Mary Barra dismissing the 'glass cliff', and Sheryl Sandberg banning bossy, among others.

So what were the big talking points of 2014? Here are some of the highlights:

Stalled women
Next year marks the deadline for the Davies report , which called for a minimum of 25 per cent female representation on FTSE 100 boards by 2015.

Yet, by October of this year we'd reached 22.8 per cent, with few women in executive roles and a total of 61 companies still shy of the 25 per cent mark.

A report by Catalyst found Europe's diversity agenda stuck in stall, with women's progress slow enough to prompt the organisation's executive director, Allyson Zimmerman, to ask: Is the workplace in Europe (and all over) awash with male mediocrity and a handful of exceptional women?

So what's the problem? Many pointed to unconscious bias and corporate culture, and the 'double bind' that distorts women's leadership into "something monstrous".

Then there is the dearth of women 'in the pipeline' or just below board level: a CBI report found that the proportion of female managers in the UK was static, leaving companies understocked with leadership-ready women. The gender pay gap was another talking point, prompted by Satya Nadella's unconsciously biased remark in October, as well as UKIP leader Nigel Farage's all-too-conscious remarks in January.

Next year: I suspect we'll be grappling with the corporate culture/bias question for a while longer yet. The more we acknowledge we're all prone to bias, and are trained to recognise it, the less pervasive it will be. As for Davies, will quotas be imposed to kickstart board equality? Probably not. But calls for greater transparency about pay may prove a more effective means of instigating equality measures.

Mother discouraged
Working mothers revealed the uncomfortable truth about so-called 'mother guilt'. Indra Nooyi, Pepsico's first female CEO, confessed that while her career flourished, she may not have made the best mother.
There was talk of the patronisingly named 'mommy track', widely regarded as a way of de-railing women's careers, and of returnships as a means of avoiding it.

But just the fact that Nooyi et al were willing to even talk about motherhood and work bodes well for the workplace, and by the end of the year, firms such as PwC, the accountants, had enhanced paternity leave as a means of improving equality.

Next year: As PwC partner Mary Dolson recently said to me, no-one will ever love leaving their children for work. But women themselves offered up practical solutions for working mothers: maternity coaching, 'keep in touch' days, or, for the energetic, a whole new career.

We also need a far more visible commitment from corporates to flexible working and an acknowledgement that working mothers (and maybe fathers) will have a different career cycle to the 'norm'. Each company has to do what works best for it, but to take the wholesale 'no flex' approach of Yahoo! may be to limit your chances in the war for talent.

The confidence question
Confidence -- or our lack of it -- seemed to be all we talked about for a while, prompted by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman's article, "The Confidence Gap". It suggested nurture, if not nature, had made women more prone to self-limiting perfectionism and 'the imposter syndrome'.

Did women themselves agree? Not universally. Entrepreneur Hilary Devey argued that both men and women suffer from self-doubt -- and that was no bad thing.

Next year: We'll probably still be pondering the confidence question, but I'd rather see more effort put into addressing the potential causes of under-confidence -- through education, sponsorship and mentoring initiatives. Given how destructive over-confidence has proven to decision-makers (think of the financial meltdown of 2008), it would also be valuable to not only accept, but acknowledge the benefits of, self-doubt.

STEM and us
Gender diversity in STEM industries, and tech in particular, was scrutinised and found wanting in 2014. Supposedly cutting-edge businesses such as Google and Twitter looked more like dinosaurs when it came to board-level equality, while tech startups seemed to positively encourage frat-boy behaviour at work.

High-powered women in tech such as Susan Wojcicki of YouTube revealed just how bad it was, and called for mandatory computer science for girls, among other things, to address the problem. Some tech firms have worked fast to rectify the situation, but candidates for jobs may be limited unless more girls opt for science-related subjects or engineering at university.

Next year: Education, as Wojcicki rightly notes, is the starting point. Campaigns such as Like a Girl and the work of groups such as Girl Geeks are helping the next generation shake off stereotypes.

At work, necessity may start to trump prejudices. Employers looking to hire 'digital natives' will have to look beyond the usual white men for their geek contingent. And the more we see entrepreneurs such as Elizabeth Holmes make successes of STEM startups, the more role models we'll have for girls to emulate.

Mind how you go
This was a year when corporates embraced the notion of mindfulness training for leaders. It was a tacit acknowledgement that the aggressive, command-and-control leadership type has become tired. Perhaps influenced by women and men from other cultures, businesses started to use words such as 'humility' and 'collaboration' to denote a more nurturing style of leadership that promotes what Carol Dweck calls a 'growth mindset' among everyone.

Next year: 'Soft power' brokers such as investment boss and diversity lobbyist Helena Morrissey may have begun to influence leadership behaviour. But there's a way to go before our default image of a leader changes.

He's with me
If a certain tick-box weariness began to creep in to diversity initiatives, it's probably because half the workplace wasn't included. As the 30 Percent Club has demonstrated, having male allies who want the same things as women is extremely powerful.

Male advocates for women's rights were given a platform, thanks to campaigns such as He for She and, at work, MARC. That men should champion 'women's issues' seemed one-sided to some, but failure to include men in workplace diversity initiatives has proven alienating.

Next year: Millennial men and women want largely the same things from work -- chief among them flexibility. Their expectations should prompt a re-shaping of traditional career arcs for both sexes. But we can't just wait till the 'old guard' retires: workplaces need to focus more on inclusive behaviour, less on an 'us and them' mentality.

(Photo of Malala Yousafzai by Statsministerens kontor, CC2.0)