Women in leadership roles

By Margaret Kett

A new paper on women in leadership roles, Rethink What You “Know” About High-Achieving Women, that was released in the December 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), is only set to further the debate on women in the C-Suite and the boardroom.

The authors, Robin Ely and Colleen Ammerman of Harvard Business School, and Pamela Stone of Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, based their paper on a study of more than 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates, focusing their research on baby boomers (ages 49-67), generation X (ages 32-48), and millennials (ages 26-31) of both genders.

Choosing to undertake their research with HBS graduates wasn’t because two of the authors are on the faculty of this leading business school, but because attending such a prestigious school is a reasonable indication of high levels of achievement and talent. Furthermore, looking at both genders from the same business school provided the authors with a closely matched and statistically relevant sample.

It has long been assumed that, at some point in their careers, women will want to take time out to raise a family. Justifiable perhaps but, as pointed out in the HBR paper, females who believed their careers would be equal in importance to their partners and who also believed in a more equal division of labour for childcare responsibilities, had their expectations dashed on both fronts.

Almost 75 per cent of baby boomer and Generation X men reported their careers had taken precedence over their female partners, with the same percentage believing their partners should also take responsibility for raising the family. As for the millennial generation, 50 per cent of men believed their career progression will take precedence over their spouses’ careers and almost 70 per cent believed their partners would take responsibility for childcare.

It’s little wonder, then, that gender inequality at senior management and board level remains a contentious issue. Nevertheless, it’s not all a ‘one-way’ street and the reason why more women aren’t in top management positions isn’t entirely clear. Raising their families is a very important issue for many women and they do want to take time out to be with their young ones. A good number of those women would also want to return to corporate life following a maternity break. However, the options for them appear quite limited.

Although the authors of the HBR paper believe change will be slow, I see that change is starting to take place and I expect to see more women being appointed to senior management roles. One of the reasons for this expectation is what is already taking shape in the recruitment of senior executives.

Astute business leaders are realising that to maximise on the opportunities that lie ahead, leadership behaviours must change. Particularly with increasing numbers of the millennial generation entering the workforce, the style of management is becoming significantly important. The principal reason for this is that workplace culture, democratic management style, a sense of belonging, variety and flexibility are the key motivators of this generation, not the opportunity to earn mega salaries and rapidly climb the hierarchical ladder.

Transactional management styles (command-and-control, hierarchical and systems oriented amongst others) on their own are no longer able to drive corporate performance. CEOs are now looking to hire executives with more transformational styles of management. And it is to women where these leadership styles can often be found.

There is a growing belief that not only do women bring a different and effective approach to management, but also that this difference is beginning to positively influence the organisation in very specific ways. The stereotypical masculine view of leadership, alongside preconceived opinions of what it takes to be an effective leader, are inexorably giving way to leadership traits that are more inclusive, interactive and nurturing in style. However, it will be those organisations that can create a greater balance between transactional and transformative management styles that will excel in both the short- and long-terms.

Biog of Margaret Kett

Margaret Kett is a professional executive search consultant at global search consultants Tyzack Partners. Her early career was in FMCG and Oil and Gas before moving into Management Consultancy.

Margaret leads Tyzack’s Human Resources practice crossing all industry sectors and all areas of Human Resources.

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