On Having the Courage to Light Yourself Up

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Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion.  You must set yourself on fire – Arnold H Glasgow

I passionately believe that many of the problems the world faces today could be solved if more women rose up to leadership positions. This is hardly a subversive or revolutionary stance.  Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, recently stated that women leaders will play a particularly unique role in making the transition away from “business as usual” to reshape “our societies for a sustainable, inclusive and resilient future”.

Women connect with the injustice of the negative impacts on the most vulnerable and the intergenerational inequities we will contribute to if we fail to act now and pass the problem on for future generations to deal with.  However, for women to lead in taking such responsibility they have to hold positions of power and influence in the business world, a world where women continue to be in the minority.

 Empowering women, improving their representation and participation in all walks of life, but particularly in the male-dominated world of business, is a critical step in tackling the climate crisis.

A report published by McKinsey last September states that addressing gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue, but also a critical economic challenge. If women, who account for half the world’s working age population, do not achieve their economic potential, the global economy will suffer. McKinsey estimates that if every country matched the progress toward gender parity of its fastest-improving neighbor, global GDP could increase up to $12 trillion, or 11% in 2025.

McKinsey’s Gender Parity Score considers 15 separate indicators of gender equality from the % of women who experience violence, maternal mortality rates, education levels, wage gap and legal rights.  Using the GPS, the firm has unsurprisingly, established a strong link between gender equality in society and the attitudes and beliefs about the role of women, and gender equality in work.

It’s not just developing countries that stand to benefit by tackling inequality.  Unsurprisingly, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and India score extremely high on the level of gender inequality across all measures and its therefore these economies that stand most to benefit from the suggested interventions (financial incentives and support; technology and infrastructure; the creation of economic opportunity; capability building; advocacy and shaping attitudes and laws, policies and regulations).

However the powerful UK and US are not leading the way: inequality in wages is similar to that found Russia; political representation is similar in China and the burden on women of unpaid care work is similar in Kazakhastan.  The US scores much better than the UK on the ratio of women in leadership positions.  The UK scores the same as Poland on this measure.

The five-year update report published October 2015, on board diversity in the UK doesn’t suggest that will change any time soon.  Whilst Lord Davies’ target, set in 2011, of 25% female representation by 2015 has been achieved (the report states 25.16% of executive and non-executive positions in the FTSE100 are held by women), the number of women in executive positions, i.e. roles that are responsible for the day-to-day running and decision making of a company sits at only 11.76% (versus 8.16% in 2014) with several sectors going backwards.

Whilst the progress made on boards in only 4 years is significant (there are no longer any all-male boards) the fact is, that non-executive directors cannot exert the constant influence on a company’s culture their executive counter-parts can.

And if progress is going to be made in this area it’s culture that needs to change.  In a 2014 gender parity study by Bain & Company 1,000 men and women were surveyed in the US at all career levels and specifically asked about their interest in pursuing a top management position.  Within the first two years of entering the workforce 43% of women aspired to top management compared to 34% of men.  In other words women felt the wind in their sails feeling highly qualified after university.

Over time however, the Bain study found that women’s aspiration levels drop more than 60%, whilst men’s stay the same.  Bain’s analysis shows that marital and parental status does not significantly differ. In other words, experienced women’s career aspirations diminish relative to their younger selves and relative to their male peers regardless of whether they’d been knocked off course by motherhood or marrying the “lead career”.

A lack of female role models and lack of support from senior leaders both contribute to eroding female leaders confidence and career aspirations, however, if all a female leader sees is white middle-aged men, pulling all-nighters or bonding on the golf course then she is unlikely to feel she fits the model of leadership in her company.

As one women put it as she recounted her firm’s management retreat: “Watching middle-aged white male after middle-age white male tell their war stories of sacrificing everything to close the sale was demoralising, I just kept sinking lower in my chair and thinking that I would never be able to make it to the senior ranks if this was what it took.”

These models of leadership are deeply ingrained in corporate culture and have a significantly negative affect on employee engagement scores from men and women.  Celebrating those employees that have a more balanced approach to work life improves engagement of all employees.

Bain’s research demonstrated that many companies fail to share current leader’s stories from men and women to inspire up-and-comers. For example, the research shows that 64% of female executives and 47% of male executives at large companies have used flexible work arrangements. Unfortunately, stories of how leaders made trade-offs between work and personal life on their way to the top are often not shared broadly, in preference for war stories of all-nighters pulled.

But we know from a study of CEOs and top executives by Roger Jones of Vantage Partners, that this machismo is all BS – a front for deep feelings of insecurity.   The study found that senior leaders suffer from “imposter syndrome”, or being found to be incompetent. Amongst the other fears were underachieving (which often led to them taking bad risks to compensate); appearing too vulnerable; being politically attacked by colleagues and appearing foolish which limits their ability to speak up or have honest conversations.

And maybe that’s all that needed for us to make progress on gender parity: honest conversations between 2 groups of people feeling vulnerable, started by women who “connect with the injustice of the negative impacts on the most vulnerable”.  If you have a burning desire to lead, to change the world, it’s not going to happen by luck, or waiting for the consultants to light the touch paper. You’re going to have to light yourself up and knock on the doorway of a conversation.

Some scientists are calling the next epoch of the planet The Anthropocene, or The Age of Humans, because of the extreme impact humanity has had on our biosphere. Business as usual isn’t working. Honest conversations need to be had.

Double Flourish Grey



Also published on Medium.

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