Stop gender stereotyping if you want more women to reach top jobs
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
When I started my career in the male-dominated gambling industry, I experienced gender bias first-hand. Promotions, whether in job title or salary, were harder to obtain even though my management responsibilities were increasing. This perpetuated an ever widening gender gap — not just in pay, but in promotions, training and opportunities offered.
I felt a need to prove myself twice as much as the men, and began to accept that this was just “the way things are”.
Then everything changed when a new leader came on board. He appraised the whole team based on merit alone and never differentiated between men and women. Now I felt both empowered and driven to give my best at work. Sure enough, promotions, recognition and responsibilities soon followed.
I will never forget this experience because it changed my mindset. It made me realise that all I wanted was to work on equal terms with my male colleagues, not be treated differently based on physical traits.
And this leader had shown me it was a possible and powerful approach.
Yet what do I see when I look at the bigger picture? Think about these three business leaders, for example, and what they have in common — Mary Barra, Emma Walmsley and Whitney Wolfe-Herd. They are successful chief executives — at General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline and Bumble respectively. They stand out as leaders for their resilience, determination and inspiration. And, yes, they are all women.
However, they are also part of a disproportionately small group of female chief executives at listed companies. While efforts have been made on many fronts to increase women’s presence in leadership positions at big companies, progress is slow. In the C-suite in the US, women comprised 21 per cent in January 2020 — up from 17 per cent five years earlier — according to McKinsey, the consultancy. In the EU’s largest publicly listed companies in 2020, 19.3 per cent of executives and 7.9 per cent of CEOs were women, according to Catalyst, a non-profit group.
Moreover, female leaders tend to hold roles in support and HR functions. Men dominate sales and operations, which are the more traditional springboards to board level and chief executive positions.
Essay: the judges
This article is an edited version of the winning entry to the FT’s ninth annual essay competition, organised with the 30% Club and Henley Business School, to win a free executive MBA place. The full essay question was: “The number of women on the boards of top companies overall remains far below 50 per cent, and few make it to CEO. How can organisations, policymakers and individuals encourage greater female participation at the top?”
The judges were: Fiona Hathorn, Women on Boards; Anne Morriss, The Leadership Consortium and co-author of Unleashed; Sharon Sands, Heidrick & Struggles; Edwin Smelt, Egon Zehnder; Claire Collins, Henley Business School; Pavita Cooper, 30% Club; Matthew Vincent and Harriet Arnold, FT Project Publishing
Too often I see articles advocating for qualities that are associated with women — such as empathy, teamwork and multitasking — that would, they say, make them better senior leaders than men. But such articles perpetuate a culture of differentiation. We need more managers to think less about employees being men or women, and to see them as just people.
Could success in achieving change come, as it did for me, from empowering individuals in an environment that aims to eliminate gender comparisons — even if it does happen gradually?
Gender traits are largely cultural and acquired — and they create stereotypes. Erode these stereotypes and women might no longer have to prove their worth in roles that have been designed to be a good fit for “male” traits.
How could organisations, policymakers and individuals help achieve this?
As an entrepreneur in the technology sector, I believe in leading by example, choosing talent over expectations based on gender, recognising performance and ensuring opportunities are offered according to merit.
More broadly, I have seen that when organisations highlight women’s achievements, the value they bring to our workplaces and our communities gains visibility. Promoting a culture of support and confidence in women’s abilities encourages their self-belief in management and leadership roles right across a business, which eventually leads to more senior management positions.
Policymakers can and should do more to ensure that men and women have the same benefits packages, the same access to promotions and that recruitment processes are transparent. For example, more and better access to equal parenting leave would lessen assumptions that women’s careers will be disproportionately disrupted by parenthood.
As individuals, we have great power to effect change, by promoting equality at work, at home and in the next generation’s upbringing. Women still shoulder most housework and childcare responsibilities, for instance. Dubbed “the double shift”, this has increased during the pandemic, according to McKinsey. Yet redressing the imbalance here would reduce the extra burnout that women report.
If we as a society tackle gender biases as early as possible in life and focus instead on individual interests, skills and aspirations, we will equip the next generation to have wider choices about their futures. For women, this could ultimately end the so-called female leadership paradox, in which they demonstrate leadership qualities yet remain unselected for the top jobs. Women would no longer need to comply with gender roles derived from outdated leadership models.
The pandemic is wreaking big changes in the workplace, so why not incorporate the above? The prospect gives me hope that my young daughter will be able to flourish in equal standing to any other candidate for promotions. Success for women means success for humankind: it leads to greater equality and enables the best people for the job to drive growth and success.
True equality of opportunity and outcome will be achieved when we no longer feel we have to quote percentages of men or women in certain roles and positions, because we have certainty that gender is not a discriminating factor.
The writer is an entrepreneur