Women in leadership – a wicked problem and an immeasurable opportunity

A wicked problem can be described as having “innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer”. (Strategy as a wicked problem, HBR).

I think this is a good description for the women in leadership conundrum with continuous waves of progress made and then setbacks. To this complex problem we need to continuously apply fresh thinking. As Einstein famously said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

With lots of new year leadership team kick offs taking place across organisations currently, I’ve been hearing multiple references to 50:50 women in leadership quotas as discussion points. With females approximately 50% of the global population this makes sense to most (the share of the population that is female – varies across the world. And globally in 2017 the share of women in the world was 49.6% – https://ourworldindata.org/)

But is it that simple?…..

One of my good friends is in a multinational leadership team here in Australia with a 50:50 all company gender split target. We were having a good debate with our spouses recently about what this means in practice. Particularly the conundrum about what happens if there are two candidates left in a recruitment process with the male being more suited than the female for the role, yet they are pressured to hire the female to get closer to their target. Not an unusual situation in the corporate world.

Julie Bishop is a voiced fan of ‘meritocracy’ and lots of senior females I know would not want to get the job just for meeting a quota (myself included). The problem is in some sectors there just are not enough qualified women in particular fields, particularly in cyber security which I saw when I was working in executive search.

I think a big key is developing the next generation of female leaders to help close the gap so there are enough women for competitive recruitment processes. I am encouraged to see more grassroots problems like ‘Girls who Code’ to try and address this issue and reskilling programs for older women. Harvard Fellow Claudio Fernández-Aráoz describes hiring for potential and I do think this is an important factor for women in particular, especially when some have had time out for childbirth. When working at IECL I remember a reference to a corporate study in a large bank where they found the most productive team members were the 3 or 4 day a week return to work mums.

In our 50:50 quota debate it was pointed out that whilst females are responsible for carrying and delivering babies there are going to be delays in female career progression.  I do see this valid point and have had conversations with female elite athletes around the challenges of trying for a baby in their athletic prime with the break a potential to end their sporting career. In the business world, I do think there are ways we can help mitigate this however which will explore further on.

I feel it is also important to note that this is not to say success for many women is prioritising children and being the leader of the family which my wonderful mum did whilst working two shifts a week. I think celebrating and acknowledging this experience with return-to-work parents is a crucial part of the equation. As mentioned in a letter to Fi and Jane in this Fortunately podcast episode it would be great to have a societal matrix for success where this is recognised as much as the top corporate jobs in terms of the functioning of society. I do believe however we can be loving, present parents and advance our careers with a lifelong learning approach. I was fortunate that my husband could take two lots of 6 months paid paternity leave from the University where he works for both of our boys which enabled me to continue pursuing my career. It has been most encouraging to see a rise in the number of men taking paternity leave to help their female partners return to work.

The data

When you look at the ASX data in Australia the stats are pretty dire, currently only 5% of the ASX 200 companies are led by a women the last I read (ASX200 report reveals number of female CEOs in Australia is falling). We’ve found a more positive story in multi national subsidiary leadership generally but still a long way from 50% representation at the top. I don’t have an overall stat but in our Tenfold membership, 28% of our multinational CEOs are female. The story for ASX Boards is more encouraging too. KPMG’s article on ‘Building Gender Diversity on ASX 300 Boards’ shares – “The 30% Club Australia launched in May 2015 with the primary objective of campaigning for 30 percent women on ASX 200 boards. As the decade ended, for the first time, women made 30 percent of board seats on the ASX 200 – evidence that meaningful change can be achieved through voluntary targets.” A key learning of the power of focus and what gets measured gets managed, also perhaps the role of a Board Member is more suited to females in general than an ASX 200 CEO position? The WGEA insights are a great resource and their 2020 analysis of data revealed a key message, More women in key decision making positions delivers better company performance, greater productivity and greater profitability.

When you look at other sectors including small business owners and not for profits however there are more examples of females leading. In our Tenfold NFP community for example 59% of the CEOs are female. Perhaps traditional listed corporate environments largely set up for men by men do not suit the average female? It would be interesting to survey the next couple of layers down in these ASX companies and ask females do they want the top job (if anyone knows of this data please let me know!). It leads to a point that I think there is a great opportunity for current Boards, Shareholders, Executive Teams and other stakeholders to really listen to their senior women and ask what they would like. Maybe it is not the top job, maybe it is.

All in all though the research shows and I do believe the world will be a better place with more females at the helm (just look at Jacinda Ardern) as well as other diversity demographics being represented.

For me, a key part is developing the next generation of exceptional female leaders and young female leaders taking responsibility for this development. From my own experience as a female leader with two young boys of 5 and 3 here are 10 ways (in no particular order) that I believe can help grow and nurture more female senior leaders:

  1. Role Models – “You can’t be what you can’t see” as the saying goes. This is why I believe more positive female leader role models are essential to inspire the next generation. I was fortunate to have Aunty Julie as a role model in business who I looked up to as a young girl. After an opportunity to join her in Hong Kong for my year 10 work experience I knew I’d like to work in the business arena to help create positive change. The more women we do have on senior leadership teams the more a relatable path there is for aspiring leaders. One reason for quotas and targets.
  2. Mentoring and Coaching – I’ve been grateful to have had a formal mentor (thanks Alison) and a bench of informal mentors (thanks Meredith, John of late) to help navigate my career so far as well as executive coaches (Thanks Oscar, Jill, Monica, Ros and Des). At career crossroads mentors have help guide me with standout quotes being “back yourself” (thanks Gaby) and “think yes…and” (thanks Rich). Coaches have helped stretch my thinking with powerful questions including what would you do if you weren’t scared?. It is great to see more mentoring programs emerge for both males and females including through the Public Education Foundation which I am looking forward to being part of this year and mentoring a high school student. I also think the role of peer mentoring can be just as powerful. I’ve made a point of connecting with peers regularly throughout my career to learn leaning and support each other (Thanks to Tricky, Rebecca, Emily and Dave in recent times).
  3. Playing sports – EY came out with an insightful piece of research last year highlighting the positive impact of sports on women and leadership (Why a female athlete should be your next leader | EY – Global). From my own experience playing field hockey through school, college and university in the UK and then getting into triathlon in Australia feel I have learnt invaluable lessons including resilience, perspective and discipline (you can read about my learning from doing an Ironman back in 2014 here).
  4. Shared responsibility – For more women to be in leadership positions it does mean more shared responsibility at home. I’m grateful my husband takes at least half the load and it’s been great to see more dads at preschool pick-ups. However, I often see over 90% of females picking up children from school in my area. Also, mums on average being responsible for more of the school admin and parties, play dates and extracurricular activities. I think shifts in this area will compound over time.
  5. Leadership development – As women I think we can get ahead by investing in ourselves, putting our hand up for leadership development opportunities and not waiting for a manager to always do this. One of the best things I did as a young leader was apply for a scholarship for Avril Henry’s ‘Great Leaders are Made” program which gave me invaluable development. We have to take responsibility for our learning.
  6. Taking risks – I do believe sometimes you need to take risks to get ahead. After my maternity leave with our second child I took a risk in leaving my stable wonderful job of six years to try out my own digital coaching and consulting business. I learnt a lot in the process which lead me to work at Gartner, then Derwent and then Tenfold. These last few were relatively short tenure positions (which may not look great for a traditional CV!) but they taught me lots about myself and what work aligns to my purpose.
  7. Celebrating each other – Those females who have their tribe of girlfriends will know of the wonderful support and encouragement this can yield. I love sharing learning and accountability regularly with some wonderful ladies including Myza, Zoe, Ingrid, Shaneen, Leanne, Tam, Nes, Bel, Tracey and Tracy. When this ethos is carried through to workplaces great things can happen with women sponsoring other women, backing their ideas, ensuring they have a voice at the table and paying it forwards. There has been too much talk of the ‘queen bee’ phenomenon where senior women distance themselves from junior women which I think we need to dispel through more acts of sorority. What’s one thing we can all do this week to pay it forward to another female?
  8. Male champions of change – Males of course are a key part, if not the key part in the women in leadership advancement. I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing male leaders, coaches and mentors including but not limited to JRay, PD, Tony, Cai, Warwick, Rich and Steve who I’d like to express sincere thanks. The Male Champions of Change initiative is an example of men stepping up beside women on gender equality.
  9. Networking – Joining external organisations can be a huge support to women looking to advance their career. Instrumental to me early on was Network Central which was run by Kim McGuiness, I loved her approach that she only connects with people who do things from the heart. For many the term ‘networking’ is a turn off, yet when reframed as meaningful connections based on mutual value adds it seems more appealing. One CEO I spoke with recently sees networking when done right as ‘paying it forwards’ which I love. I have recently joined the International Cycling Executives (ICE) group which is a wonderful supportive business community with the mutual passion of cycling. Who is your tribe?
  10. Prioritising Mental health – I believe prioritising mental health as much as physical is key for both female and male leaders to thrive over the long term. Life changing for me was going through the Jon Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program when I was pregnant with Ethan (Thanks Kate) and then training in Vedic meditation (Thanks Cathy). I now draw on these techniques as well as guided daily meditations on Insight Timer, the Chopra app and Wim Hof’s breathing technique.

I am inspired by the next generation of female leaders coming through including my Tenfold buddy Amy, goddaughter Kya and friend Bri and I hope these thoughts may be useful to some on the journey. In this current career phase I have a strong yearning to give back which is also one of our tenfold principles. My New Year evolution (inspired by this Rich Hirst blog) is ‘positive impact’ which I look forward to kick starting with some pro bono coaching and mentoring and opportunities this month.

As an aspiring leader what can you do today to take control of today to own your own development? It could simply be reaching out to someone you admire and asking to share learning over a coffee. As a senior leader male or female, what can you do today to pay it forward and help develop a female leader?

Love to hear any thoughts on this important topic. What resonates, what doesn’t, female leaders what has helped you on your journey? What has gotten in the way? By having more discussions and taking actions through the year as a collective, not just around International Women’s Day I believe more change is possible. At Tenfold we are bringing together CEO members of our multinational and NFP community this week and will listen and learn from them in how they can thrive as leaders in this current environment.

To finish with this Seneca saying that “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Be prepared for when that unique opportunity arises. Anything is possible. Reach for the stars!

I appreciate depending on where you live at this current time including the UK and Europe where I have dear family and friends that there may be a lot more pressing issues on hand, thinking of you.

Reading I have found useful in this area:

1 Comments on “Women in leadership – a wicked problem and an immeasurable opportunity”

  1. Pingback: Women in leadership – a wicked problem and an immeasurable opportunity – Transformation!

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