Why Gender Diversity In Leadership Is Still An Issue


When we first started talking about our Women’s Leadership Programme, the response was interesting. One of the questions, often asked tongue in cheek, was “what about a men’s leadership programme, why are you just creating a programme for women?”

We do a lot of leadership work, and in our consultancy work we certainly work with more male leaders than female, the issues isn’t men in leadership, or women in leadership – it is simply about the in-balance across the two. Let’s look at a few simple statistics:

  • Women still make up just 6.6% of the CEO spots in the Fortune 500 (Catalyst 2020)
  • Among full-time workers, the gender pay gap remains at 8.9%. It has decreased only 0.6 percentage points since 2012 (Catalyst 2020)
  • Only 1 in 3 UK Entrepreneurs are women (Prowness 2020)

Ultimately, this is what lead us to create our women’s leadership programme, but let’s make one thing clear before we continue. Gender equality is absolutely not about raising women up at the expense of men, or positive discrimination that means the wrong people are put into roles just to balance a number. Gender equality is about creating a work environment that values, encourages, and provides opportunities to men and women equally and gives them the freedom to be themselves in the workplace.

Couple this with statistical evidence that clearly shows that a more balanced representation of women in top leadership positions produces better financial results. All of our work is focussed on creating the biggest results for our clients, and ultimately, companies with female leaders within their leadership team, outperformed those without.

Our Women’s Leadership Programme is not an isolated, one off interaction, with most clients we run this in tandem with all of our other organisational culture work, and throughout the program provide tools for conversation and integration way beyond the learning in the room. The reason behind this is that real change around gender diversity is wider than just a leadership programme – it is about changes in cultural beliefs and behaviour across an organisation to create more diversity on an ongoing, sustained basis.

How Conscious or Unconscious Are Diversity Issues?

Diversity is a complex thing to review in your business, whether that is gender diversity, racial diversity, or any other type of bias or discrimination that could exist in your business. Often the biases aren’t deliberate, but more of unconscious action, often driven by someone’s own experiences and backgrounds.

HBR writes that discrimination can be intentional (disparate treatment) or unintentional (disparate impact), and it is important to address both aspects of it. Good intentions may be enough to reduce intentional discrimination, but they won’t stop unintentional bias. For instance, companies often place hurdles in the hiring process, looking for qualities or qualifications that aren’t truly needed to perform the job, which can skew the hiring selection in favour of some groups.

The key to really look at how diverse you are, and in this case, how gender diverse your business is to ask yourself some real questions around this, starting with:

“Do you think gender diversity is an issue?”

Obviously we have stated some clear statistics above, but it is really interesting the different answers we get on this. Michelle Penelope King, Author of The Fix and Head of Diversity at Netflix sums this up in her research:

“Even when I encouraged leaders to think more carefully about their own organisations, which had a dismal number of women in senior leadership roles, most of them couldn’t name one barrier. Those that could, always cited motherhood. These leaders saw motherhood as a decision by women to put their home life ahead of their working life. The two identities could never coexist. 

I shared the findings with a fellow PhD student hoping to make sense of the data. After thinking it over she asked, “Well, what is the greatest barrier women face at work?” Without thinking, I replied, “This, the denial of our individual differences and the inequality that creates at work.” There was silence as she waited for me to realise what I had just said. “Oh, of course,” I said. “You can’t tackle all the barriers if people don’t think they exist.”

Leaders create organisational cultures that don’t support women but are unaware of how they do this and the specific challenges this creates for women.”

She goes on to discuss findings from her study that found that often, in a lot of work environments, the stereotype for success is heavily masculine. Anne Cummings, a former Wharton Management Professor, backs this thought up with her studies around masculine and feminine leadership style, she states “men tend to be more task-oriented while women take on a more interpersonal style of leadership. Therefore, a “masculine” style tends toward assertive and task-based behaviours, while a “feminine” style is more relationship oriented and “democratic.”

Often, this masculine leadership style being celebrated as the model for great leadership, which can be adopted by men and women alike, breeds opinion throughout the business culture, and becomes an ongoing challenge to unpick.

Is There Gender Denial In Your Business?

In The Fix, Michelle King details questions, outlined below, to benchmark if you are practicing gender denial at work. It can be difficult to believe that something is happening in your business if you can’t see it, or don’t experience it. As King states: “Disrupting denial starts with understanding differences at work.” Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What kind of leaders do you believe succeed? Can you describe their attributes? Are they associated with a success prototype?
  • Do you think women should change their behaviour or do things differently to advance and ultimately lead?
  • Do you think men and women experience the workplace differently? Why do you think there are so few women in leadership positions?
  • What barriers do you think all women face in their careers and as they advance into leadership positions?
  • How do you think these challenges differ for individuals based on demographic differences like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and physical or mental ability?
  • Aside from existing diversity and inclusion initiatives, what else could your business do to create an environment that supports all women to lead?
  • How do your leaders and employees practice equality every day through their actions, behaviour, and routines?

Asking these open-ended questions will reveal whether leaders understand men and women’s experiences of inequality.

How Does Our Women’s Leadership Programme Support This?

When we created our Women’s Leadership Programme, a large part of that drive certainly came from wanting to be part of the solution in tackling gender inequality. Despite this, our firm belief still stands as – positive discrimination is not any better than negative discrimination – all businesses should focus on right person, right role, every time. Regardless of gender, or other diversity challenges. However, sometimes the way that someone becomes “the right person” is through their access to training, mentoring, exposure and stereotypes or approaches in your business, so the important thing to address is how you are providing an equal work experience to all of your team members.

Through our own experience on subconscious drivers, and backed up by studies – employees who are most like their leaders will have an unfair advantage. This makes gender diversity a slower process as the more unbalanced leadership teams continue to be, the more unbalanced future leaders are. This then filters down into the invisible barriers we detailed above. There are three key ways our Women In Leadership Programme addresses this:

Changing The Narrative of The Success Stereotype

Through our programme we discuss and re-define leadership success. Often due to the successful leader prototype having masculine qualities of dominance, assertion, competitivness and agression, women leaders can feel like they have to be a different person to succeed. Truly diverse organisations give both men and women alike the freedom to be themselves, and to develop female leaders to be their most impactful the ability to be authentic in their role is essential. We cover many of the differing aspects behind authenticity and work with our groups to develop their own set of unique authentic leadership traits, laddering these through into key result areas for their businesses and teams.

Female Leadership Peer Group

In addition to working on developing an authentic leadership voice, we put together a peer group of strong female leaders who exhibit different behaviours to the success prototype that the whole group can learn from. In addition to providing an external mentoring and support network, the group exposes all of the female leaders to different ways of doing things, and the ability to benchmark internal leadership practices and processes, to then apply best practice back in their own businesses.

More Balanced Leadership Role Models 

Once the women that join our programme then go back into their own businesses, we can start to address the leadership role models in their businesses. By having a more diverse and balanced leadership team, team members in the business are able to better see their own career paths, or growth points, regardless of gender or other diversity considerations.

If you are interested in exploring what we cover in our Women In Leadership Programme, you can find out more here.