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  • Writer's pictureSandy Burgham

10 reasons why progress for women in leadership in the private sector is glacial to non-existent

Happy International Women’s Day, the global day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. And yes, we have come a long way…or have we?

At Play CoLab we have been wondering how we might acknowledge this day because aside from Covid restrictions, gender is a particular interest of Play CoLab’s. So rather than high-fiving all the great women and supportive men out there, we decided that it would be more true to our work in personal, professional and systems transformation, to challenge some traditional thinking around the term "Women in Leadership".

You may of course just rather join in the festivities and have a glass of bubbly with a strawberry in it. But, if you are up for a bigger, perhaps disruptive conversation, read on.

I’ve long been interested in the term Women in Leadership having led a large-scale, women in leadership programme in New Zealand some years ago which led me to create

Play Contemporary Leadership CoLab where we work with all genders and take on research and consultancy projects in the area of systems change. But it has always bugged me that despite meeting and working with the most incredible women, many of whom have been on programmes that I’ve been involved in, the tracking of women into the most senior positions of publicly listed companies and other large organisations continues to be described as glacial. We all know it’s a problem, so why just not fix it? The public sector (government organisations) has pretty much done this in New Zealand but not the private sector, or large organisations listed on the Stock Exchange (NZSX).

So as part of my post-graduate studies in Gender, I chose to explore this as a dissertation topic. My key provocation is that Women in Leadership is a construct that simply provides a veneer of progress in the patriarchy. (Too much? Too heavy for you? More champagne? Hope you are still with me!).

The Women in Leadership construct is a subset of Diversity and Inclusion - another term which infers intention to change the leadership and overall organisational culture. However, despite the plethora of activities designed to change the leadership landscape, from women in leadership courses to women’s networking groups and clubs, in the private sector,

progress is glacial to non-existent. In fact, around 18 months ago it was discovered that amongst NZSX listed companies, i.e. the biggest employers in New Zealand that make a critical contribution to our economy, there were fewer female Chief Executives than there were Chief Executives named Mark. I laughed and then I cried. This was announced around the same time it was discovered that an embarrassing 27 companies were listed as having not one female director. This has since been reduced to 10 companies but note that 36 have only one female director! It’s amazing anyone invests! What’s more, last time I counted there were only two female CEOs in the NZX50.

How can this be? Well, you could read my rather long dissertation but for those who want a ready reckoner on why progress is glacial to non-existent in the private sector, here are the top ten reasons why:

1. Money, money, money

While the public sector has an obligation to serve a fair and civilised society, the private sector, particularly those large organisations listed on the Stock Exchange, do not necessarily have an intention to serve society.

Simply put, they serve their shareholders and financial returns are prioritised. If people really cared, even remotely, about values such as fairness, equality and equity, no one would invest in companies with non-diverse leadership. Often an economic argument is used to justify having more women directors because apparently, those organisations that have more women directors deliver greater financial returns. (This is the “talk to them in the language they understand” approach).

It saddens me when even women have to work this hard or stoop this low on proving their worth and their right to be at the top table. I have always found this type of market feminism a little patronising and sexist. It casts doubt that women are as good as men in business and suggests that the only reason they should play at the top table is so they can make more money for the company.

2. Fixing the women vs fixing the system

Women in Leadership is the overall nomenclature under which so many strategies, tactics and activity fall to make everyone feel that they are doing something to correct the system.

Women are told they need a) 'a bit more confidence' to shake off that 'imposter syndrome', b) perhaps establish a wider network of women so they can use their connections like men do and c) a few more tools in their toolkit to ready them for the big game at the top. They are sent on 'women in leadership' courses to round them out and make them less like they are and more ‘leaderly’ I guess. But this is misleading because it turns the lens away from the system that disadvantages women and puts the onus on women to change. By providing programmes to ‘fix the women rather than fix the system’ there is an implication of female-specific leadership deficiencies.

Perhaps you might like to reflect on how come women need help with their deficiencies, more than men need help with theirs?

Women – hear me – I am a leadership coach, researcher and have led large-scale and small-group women in leadership courses. You’re more than fine, you always were. You’re ready to lead. Now.

3. Emotional labour and the triple shift

Because the system never says - "it’s not you, it’s me" – women are tricked into believing that they are not getting ahead because they are not good enough. Hence, they embark on a never-ending process of making themselves better and better. This female quest for the perfectible self is actually the subject of my next research project but for now know this: 30 years ago, a feminist academic Arlie Hochschild created the term "the second shift”

to reflect how working women also do the lion’s share of domestic labour in households.

There is little change to this phenomenon even in New Zealand. But there is an even greater burden. Now working women are being expected to be the “agents of change” for the system – being part of unpaid committees and clubs, attending networking events and seminars on their own time to champion women in leadership, all the while doing their day job as well as the second shift.

I have always wondered where the men are in all of this? Are they trying as hard to shift the leadership landscape? Sure, there are a few men that are “leaning in” as the saying goes but I suspect a fair few are simply out playing golf.

4. Benevolent sexism

A few male executives may feel a little bruised reading point 3, particularly those ones who haven’t been me-too’ed and/or are busy making sure there is budget and support for women in leadership bits and pieces. I realise that their hearts may be in the right place but, unfortunately, they may be demonstrating a type of benevolent sexism that works in a subtle way to keep the prevailing patriarchy in place.

As opposed to hostile sexism which is overtly derogatory to women, benevolent sexism looks positive on the surface but positions women as needing paternalistic protection and help from men. You know, the great male boss who sends his female protégé on a "women in leadership" course, or a special prize for women who do more emotional labour helping other women in their spare time.

So actually it re-establishes traditional gender roles. In other words, benevolent sexism sets up a feedback loop where women are rescued by the same system that renders them a victim.

Benevolent sexism is commonly directed toward women who are deemed worthy, those good girls who get special attention, and so it positively correlates with inequality within gender. Women who don’t fit in, by being too much the angry feminist like the one you probably think I am, or perhaps too Māori so you risk prioritising your culture over company bottom line, don’t get the breaks on the basis of being too naughty or frankly, too brown.

This all must hurt those men who really do try. They might feel like they are doing so much and not being recognised for it…. Yes, it hurts a bit doesn’t it?

5. The gender difference myth

We are halfway through my top ten, so I’ll throw in something positive lest you think I am very “angry” which is of course a bad way to be for women. We must be calm and nice so as not to rock the boat.

It is widely accepted that women are socialised differently to men and undergo different experiences so it would figure that women in leadership courses exist on the basis of difference.

Yes, women are different than men and that’s all great. But in leadership they are different because they are better. Big call? Well, know that the founders of The Leadership Circle organisation have collected global data from over 250,000 leaders through 360 profiling. Their research shows that women and men do not have significantly different leadership characteristics when operating at extraordinarily high levels of leadership competency.

In fact, it shows that the average ratings for men and women are very similar amongst eighteen different competency measures that are aligned to extraordinary leadership.

In other words, what good leadership is for men is the same as it is for women. There is one special competency where there was a difference - the ability to build empathetic relationships which is seen as a ‘soft’ leadership skill. However, the women outstripped men when it came down to extraordinary leadership, suggesting that women are not just as good as men, but better than men at leadership in general.

The authors of the research, incidentally both older, white men, suggest there is "a pent up demand for what women bring to leadership" and the data makes "a strong argument for gender diversity and inclusion and an even stronger case for women in leadership".

6. Data gathering as a replacement for progress

I won’t bore you with more data but know that:

a) I am a researcher at heart and Play CoLab the contemporary leadership collaboration I founded is evidence-based, so anything we do has a strong research component underpinning it and that includes this article.

b) There is more talk about data than actual progress. The NZSX had only one female board director when it created its ‘NZX Corporate Governance Code 2017’ requiring the boards of listed companies to set measurable objectives for achieving gender diversity. Champions for Change are doing a sterling job collecting data but I noted that not all the participating Champions for Change members shared the diversity data in the published report last year.

Perhaps it would be a lot easier to simply set a quota – how about 50/50 for the hell of it – and deliver on it. Oh, but that’s when things get messy…

7. Quota Anxiety

There is significant research showing that the blunt tool of quotas works in increasing women’s representation at director level but somehow the system avoids it.

There are three usual arguments against quotas that are used in the private sector:

Firstly - quotas might lead to inappropriate appointments of women who are not good enough which might undermine the overall progress of women into leadership and board roles.

My answer – yes some women are not good enough but what about the current state of affairs where there are inappropriate appointments of men who often are not good enough?

There is some terrific research into the rise of "the mediocre male”. Ouch, that may have hurt.

Secondly - no woman is comfortable being seen as the “token female”.

My answer - resisting tokenism because it might lead to discomfort in the system, ignores the fact that many women already feel uncomfortable in a system that undermines them.

Perceptions of tokenism is simply another discomfort for women to endure. If women were really interested in women in leadership they would overcome this discomfort for the greater good.

The real discomfort that is avoided is that of those who currently hold positional power in the overarching system, who are invariably white and most often but not always male.

And besides, concerns around tokenism, also ignores corresponding tokenism male appointments.

Thirdly – leadership should be performance-based and not gender-based.

My answer – oh, I know, if only leadership was a meritocracy and merit was judged in a non-biased way. But research shows clearly that this is not the case and that the performance of men and women are judged differently.

And here is the thing: women are judged on past performance and men on potential. So if it was all about performance, where are the women leaders?

8. Talent pipeline myths

I have long been fascinated by the talent pipeline metaphor - an imaginative conceptualisation of women in leadership courses filling up a mythical pipeline of talent who will naturally and effortlessly rise to the top in a fountain-like formation just when you need them.

But firstly, there is already a deep pool of talented women ready to lead at the highest levels. The issue is that this so-called pipeline is leaking because the pressure is building up and women get bored or frankly pissed off and try their luck elsewhere.

The NZSX CEO was reported to have said a couple of years ago that "the very high calibre of women in management roles will flow through to the chief executive and governance ranks over time". Hmm, that’s curiously non-specific. AUT Professor Judy MacGregor has been tracking annual reporting of boardroom compositions for 22 years and noted at the end of 2020 that progress towards gender and ethnic diversity in the boardroom had stalled, and at the current rate of change, gender parity on boards would take another decade to achieve.

Do we have that sort of time?

9. Diversity and Inclusion myths

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Lunar New Year and Matariki celebration as much as the next person. But, how come we don’t see truly diverse leadership in our largest organisations where we are blinded by whiteness despite D & I policies being all about reflecting the society we live in? Because Diversity and Inclusion is not designed to shift power constructs at the top of private sector organisations but rather aims at building a culture of inclusiveness down the food chain.

At the risk of being really unpopular (which probably happened around point 4) gender diversity is favoured above ethnic diversity despite the essential bi-cultural nature of our country. Unbelievably and somewhat ironically, it’s seen as a far easier win than any other type of diversity. Hence, positioning Women in Leadership as a diversity and inclusion panacea is dangerous, as it fundamentally ignores structural inequities amongst women.

The women who rise to the top are the ones who can afford private childcare and to dress for success. They may even have a pet unicorn – i.e. a partner who is prepared to forego their own career ambitions and take the role as the primary caregiver. Most often they are white.

Diversity and Inclusion strategy is invariably about the feelgood stuff and ignores how the circumstances of women’s lives in the domestic sphere impact on their opportunities in the public sphere. If you took all that into account you would be getting into structural change.

Which brings me to my final point:

10. The Sisterhood myth

Women in Leadership is a lofty goal that benefits some women, mainly white ones.

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report shows that more women at the top does not trickle down to better conditions for women down the food chain. This report shows that despite "positive progress in the lofty world of leadership" women’s participation in the wider labour market has stalled and financial disparities are increasing. Moreover, any gains made in OECD countries are offset by the deteriorating picture in emerging and developing economies. Despite education attainment as well as health and survival rates getting closer to parity progress, economic participation and opportunity has regressed.

In New Zealand, we see a similar pattern. For instance, not only do Pākehā and Māori women generally have different drivers in leadership but ethnicity reporting is a more revealing process of structural inequity as it paints an even more bleak picture than gender alone, unsettling the basic premise of homogeneity for women.

Of course, I want more women leaders, but only if it results in addressing real inequity and for that we must look beyond money and financial goals as a measure of success. We need to look at fairness.

If you have read this far, I imagine you standing alone on a confetti strewn floor, having finished the bottle of Prosecco, staring into space as you exhale a final breath into that limp party blower one last time, the International Women’s Day banner ripped and droopy on the office wall.

Sorry to burst your bubble and rain on your parade. But there is only one thing for it.

Get back on the horse, ride into town and go make change. But this time make it structural - an article for another day.

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