Laura Schwab's appointment as president of Aston Martin in the US, only the second woman after Mary Barra of General Motors to become an automotive CEO, poses the question: why are there so few female leaders in business?
After more than 30 years as a leader in the military, business and government, my observations are that women's capability to be effective leaders is just a great as men's. In my experience, when identifying and selecting future leaders, and in their subsequent development, women often out-perform men in areas where collaborative behaviours are required for success rather than competitive ones.
This is confirmed by multiple studies around the world. Women tend to be more attuned to this approach than many men. As the optimal behaviour in both society and organisations moves further in this direction, then the approaches women tend to use are more likely to be the route to success.
The fact that few women have got to the most senior levels in some industries and cultures is not therefore indicative of any inability to lead, but rather the problems in culture and attitudes in those sectors. That’s driven by out-of-date assumptions prevalent in many organisations about how leaders deliver success that are just plain wrong. There are still leaders in business who think that what is in effect command and control is still the best way to achieve success – when it’s more likely to degrade performance. Long-held myths can persist despite contrary evidence.
But the picture is by no means consistent. Research by McKinsey, backed up by other studies, shows large discrepancies in the number of women at senior level in different countries. The percentage of women in executive committee posts in the US is 22%, in China 20%, the EU 17%, India 7%, Japan 3%, and Saudi Arabia 2%.
Clearly there is an issue to be addressed in all these countries, but some of the figures are truly shocking. In 2019 Catalyst did a study of women in S&P 500 companies at different levels. Again there was evidence of a major issue. The percentage of women in S&P 500 firms at respective levels was CEO 5%, on boards 21%, senior executives 26%, first line and middle managers 37%, and frontline employees 45%.
There are many reasons these figures are as they are, not just that organisations are failing to recognise women's value as leaders. You can only promote people if they are present in the organisation, and for multiple reasons the percentage of women in a specific sector may be low because of its attractiveness as a career and the impact of the education system steering girls and boys in different directions.
In the UK less than 10% of engineering professionals are women, but in Latvia and Bulgaria it’s more like 30%. The driver here is the education system reflecting society's gendering of careers in the UK. But it’s the same in many other countries. 'Some jobs are for men, some for women' the myths go, again contrary to the evidence.
Does this matter from a performance perspective as well as a moral one? The evidence is clear. Women often take a different approach to getting things done to men. This diversity of perspective and action has significant benefits for organisations – companies with women on their boards are 27% more likely to beat peers than those that don’t (McKinsey). But this also suggests that any diversity of thought, not just from women, is beneficial. Men are not homogenous thinkers either. Diversity of thought drives success.
By not leveraging the full capability of women both organisations and societies fail to reach their full potential and that affects everyone. In the US and other Western nations more effective involvement of women in the workforce could add between 5% and 10% to GDP, in developing nations much more.
We in HR have a responsibility to more effectively present the business case for greater involvement from women – especially at senior levels.
Chris Roebuck is honorary visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School, City University of London