Dr Sujaya Banerjee

Dr Sujaya Banerjee is the Chief Talent Officer - Essar Group, Founder of L&OD Roundtable and Women Leadership Forum of Asia (wlfa.in).

Women and the Business of Leadership

Dr Sujaya Banerjee

Woman Leadership_Cover

Presence of Women in the Workforce.

Why Women Matter:

One in every two people on the planet is a female, yet women barely hold more than one in every five management roles. A woman’s natural role is cited as the most common reason for this, but there is a growing body of research suggesting that such imbalances within organisations can severely and adversely impact its growth prospects. Research has shown that stronger stock market growth is more likely to occur when there is higher proportion of women on senior management teams! One study found that when the representation of women on the board was greater, such companies outperformed rivals in terms of return on capital (66 per cent higher), return on equity (53 per cent higher), and sales (42 per cent higher).

The positive influence of women is thought to extend into management and strategy. For instance, boards with women on them show greater attention to audit and risk oversight and control.

Women Pressure:

Women have made substantive progress in the wider workforce over recent years – since 1970, the presence of women in the workforce in mature markets has increased from 48 per cent to 64 per cent. In India, the numbers are as low as 14 per cent.

By contrast, in mainland China, women hold one in four senior management roles, although this has also recently dropped to one in three.

In fact, emerging markets across the globe have witnessed a decline in the proportion of women in senior management roles, particularly in APAC, BRAC and Latin American economies.

Understanding the Career Barriers Women Encounter:

– Unconscious Biases – Men typically get promoted more quickly than women who may have equivalent qualifications, even in traditionally female domains like the Medical/ Nursing or Education.

– Style Issues – Some female leaders may struggle with qualities expected of them, such as kindness, compassion and struggles to assert their power.

– Push Back on Women as Leaders – Some teams push back on women who ape male behaviours as they struggle to assert their power and err on the side of aggression. They may get viewed as pushy, selfish, abrasive, and become unpopular as compared to their male counterparts.

– Filial Responsibilities – Women are typically likely to interrupt their careers to handle responsibilities to do with growing children, ageing parents and be too overloaded to invest in social networking which is so essential for career advancement.

Resistance to Women Leadership

In the language of psychologists, there are sets of widely shared conscious and unconscious associations about women and men as leaders. Women and men are generally associated with different traits; men are generally more associated with the traits that stand for leadership. In fact, one of the biggest problems with the issues around gender diversity is that leadership itself is understood in the context of the traits shown by men as leaders.

Women are usually associated with communal qualities that convey concern and compassionate treatment of other human beings. These include being affectionate, helpful, friendly, sympathetic, interpersonally sensitive and soft spoken. These are called communal qualities. Men, by contrast, are associated with agentic traits such as being aggressive, ambitious, dominant, self-confident, self-reliant and individualistic. All the leadership traits are so deeply associated with men, that what we understand of leadership itself comprises agentic behaviours.

This issue gets particularly complicated in a patriarchal society where women do not have the experience of assertion.  Women, particularly from Asian countries including India, feel constantly validated for submitting their power during their growing years. Therefore, asserting their power in a work environment is a different experience most of them are not groomed for. In the absence of benchmarking or prior experience in asserting power, it is not uncommon to see women adopt aggressive, dominant and individualistic male behaviours that end up making them appear confused and unpopular with teams. In the dearth of adequate role models the quintessential male leadership style indeed remains the only style to emulate to become a Leader. There is a wealth of opportunities for women to maintain their communal style of leadership and bring forth the true value of diversity and inclusion within organisations.

Much has been written and discussed on the infamous ‘glass ceiling’, that enables women to climb the organisational hierarchy, until they are blocked just below the summit. But this push back could stem from discrimination at all levels and not just at the top. Therefore, preparing women to ‘bring in’ their leadership assets in a meaningful manner, and putting them through crucial crucibles of leadership is  key to helping them  showcase their differentiated competence and emerge successful. The biases and prejudices must also be worked upon. Men are in the majority in most organisations, therefore building a healthy respect for diversity and inclusion, a condition for the success of men, is an important area of focus and development. Even in the 1980s, we have ample evidence of prejudices against women in the highest offices. Consider comments made by President Nixon, recorded on White House audiotapes, which were then made public through the RTI Act. While explaining why he would not appoint a woman to the US Supreme Court, Nixon said “I don’t think a woman should be in any government job whatsoever…mainly because they are erratic and emotional. Men are erratic and emotional too, but the point is that a woman is more likely to be.” Any culture where the highest offices have such damaging opinions, women have little chance of attaining influential leadership roles.

The story is no different in the developing world where scarcity and socio-economic conditioning have traditionally forced the man to be the breadwinner, and the woman to care for the home.

With education and opportunities available to women, there are a fair number of them who are attracted to careers and the economic independence that jobs offer. However, marriage and children normally cause the first ramp-offs. Getting back on the ramp is always difficult, and if the woman has experienced a second ramp-off to care for ageing parents or in-laws, it is practically impossible to get back on the field.

What Organisations can do?

As Alice Eagly and Linda Carli mention in Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership – the difficulties for Women begin with the prejudices and stereotypes in the minds of men, which lead to a continuing resistance towards women and their leadership. This prejudice questions the leadership style of women leaders and their authenticity to lead. This, coupled with the balancing act of work and family responsibilities, makes things very challenging indeed for the few who make it to the higher echelons of power within organisations.

What can organisations do to enable women to succeed?

– Increase awareness, sensitise the men within organisations, and make the diversity and inclusion quotient a condition for professional success.

– Change the long hour norms as a condition for promotions, recognition, etc. Shift the focus from ‘hours spent’ to impact and ‘results produced’.

– Bring more objectivity to performance assessments and promotions process. Cast a diversity lens on performance assessments/promotions/rewards, so that the organisation is constantly made aware of any conscious or unconscious biases that may make the process unfair for work.

– Ensure there is not just a commitment for ‘tokenism’ by hiring one or two women in inconsequential roles. Instead, there are mechanisms to ‘bring women in’ to enable them to manifest their talent within organisations.

– Avoid the sole female member syndrome, where the voice of the woman executive may be lost in the din of chauvinism and biases.

– Get women leaders to mentor other women. Get men to mentor women as well. This is key, as many talented women struggle because of the absence of adequate role models in their immediate surroundings. In patriarchal societies, this compels women to want less, develop an ambition deficit despite being educated and having opportunities. Lack of role models can get women to undermine their talent and aspire to lead the lives of the women they have largely experienced.

– Welcome women back from maternity leaves, sabbaticals, ramping-off for childcare or elder care. This is imperative and it brings a valuable edge by leveraging education, experience and potential that would otherwise turn into intellectual scrap and economic wastage.

– Any family friendly benefits must have both female and male leaders’ participation to avoid perpetuating stereotypes that make it difficult for women to succeed.

– Finally, organisations that value diversity and inclusion, and truly believe their organisation will succeed more through bringing in an alternate perspective and world-view, must give women a chance to manifest their talent. Developing cultures that talk about competence and incompetence rather than male or female, and putting stories of diverse leadership styles that are impactful, into the social discourse is important.

– There is an opportunity for organisations to be kinder, more generous and humane places where leaders lead with integrity and wisdom. All such organisations are awaiting the power of women leadership.

  • Off ramps and on ramps by Sylvia Ann Hewitt and Carolyn Buch Luce
  • Women in Senior Management still not enough – Grant Thornton
  • Women and the labyrinth of Leadership – Alice Eagly and Linda Carli


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