Developing Women Into Leadership Positions

According to recent research from Astbury Marsden, the proportion of women reaching top-level management positions in the City has doubled in the past year.

According to recent research from Astbury Marsden, the proportion of women reaching top-level management positions in the City has doubled in the past year.

More diversity in business is always a cause for celebration. But, there is still long way to go until we have anything like an equal number of men and women in leadership roles. Despite improvements, men still outnumber women the top jobs. Only 12 per cent of managing directors are now women, up from 6 per cent a year ago, whilst 19 per cent of directors and vice-presidents are female, up from 14 per cent.

This problem is down to a number of factors that can prevent many women from developing into successful leaders. External factors include the problem of unconscious bias, with research showing that men's CVs are viewed more favourably by employers than identical CVs submitted by female applicants. Employers also have a tendency to recruit in their own image, and with the majority of top jobs being held by middle aged, Caucasian men this can only continue the cycle of inequality.

Further intensifying these external factors is women's internal perception of themselves as leaders. Over the years I have met many hard-working, highly capable professional women who have been overlooked for leadership positions. Understandably disappointed they will say, 'I'm really good at my job, why haven't I made it further up the ranks?'

The answer is that becoming a leader isn't just down to excelling in your field and being great at what you do. Much of it is about constructing an effective leadership identity and many factors to act as a barrier to women developing this. For one, the qualities generally equated with great leadership - assertiveness, decisiveness, boldness and authority - are generally considered more common and 'appropriate' in men. Women aiming for senior roles will often find this outdated, masculine idea of leadership to be a hindrance - both as a result of external judgements for demonstrating these characteristics and their own judgements of themselves. As an alternative, they will sometimes instead adopt comfort, rather than leadership, roles in the workplace, such as that of 'the helper' or 'the fixer', which will often unfortunately serve to hold them back.

Similarly, by over-relying on their own competence and technical mastery as a means of getting the top jobs, women may downplay the importance of self-promotion and networking. This is to their disadvantage, as these are equally, if not more important, areas to cultivate. However this kind of 'shmoozing' can be uncomfortable for women due to its perception as somewhat inauthentic. Unfortunately, this aversion is also often also compounded by a dearth of networking opportunities aimed at women. The caricature of men bonding on the golf course prevails!

This is not to say that women don't possess the same capability as men to lead, just that their motivations as leaders are different. For example, in a controlled study, women were found to be less effective negotiators than men when arguing on their own behalf. However, when the negotiations were on someone else's behalf, women outperformed the men in the study.

Such clear motivational differences in men and women's leadership styles show the importance of adopting a sophisticated approach to leadership development if we are to have a more diverse senior workforce. Adding women to the pot and stirring is just not going to be effective. Rather, female leadership development needs to be subtle and must connect women's sense of identity as leaders to what motivates them.

Only when this kind of intelligent leadership development begins, can we hope to break free from the mire of old leadership models that do not serve organisations and the women (or men!) in them well.