· Features

Playing with the big boys: Gender in business and sport

Nicky Little, head of leadership at Cirrus, asks why gender still matters in some sectors more than others.

It was very big news when General Motors appointed Mary Barra as its first female CEO earlier this year, a first for a global carmaker – even if she did start off earning half of what her male predecessor did.

Then there’s Angela Ahrendts, regarded as one of the FTSE’s most successful CEOs when she ran Burberry. In June this year she became the first woman to join the board of technology giant Apple, in a much-publicised move.

These women are exceptional. Only 3% to 4% of CEOs worldwide are female. In most organisations, the percentage of women decreases the higher up the organisation’s career ladder you go.

There are also many influential roles in sport, as in business, that tend to be dominated by men. Tennis coaching is one. So when Andy Murray appointed Amélie Mauresmo as his new coach, headlines were made.

Gender doesn’t seem to be nearly as big an issue for Mauresmo as it is for the media commentators around her. She has openly stated that she took the job because she welcomed the career opportunity – not because she wanted to make a point about equality. And her employer, Andy Murray, stressed the same. He says he hired Mauresmo for her skills and experience.

Although facing obstacles when securing leadership roles is often presented as a women's issue, it affects everyone. All organisations benefit from having a wide talent pool to draw on. And more and more people are seeking out employers with strong ethics.

HR professionals are, of course, big supporters of diversity. However, the HR profession – and business leaders in general – don’t always agree on the best route to equality. Quotas? They’re often considered controversial. More female role models? Many agree this is a powerful way to attract women into ‘male’ professions and leadership roles – which is why the appointments of Mauresmo and Barra were welcomed by so many.

Our world is constantly changing, and perceptions of women in the workplace are in rapid flux. One recent study from Florida International University found that when it comes to being perceived as effective leaders, women are rated as highly as men, and sometimes higher.

Lead researcher Samantha Paustian-Underdahl believes this finding stems from society’s changing gender roles and the need for a different leadership style in our globalised workplace – one that is more collaborative, connected, and open. She suggests it is likely that the stereotypical view that associates leadership with masculinity is dissolving slowly over time.

This study, like many others, finds that men tend to rate themselves as significantly more effective than women rate themselves. Another recent study by recruitment company Robert Half found that 24% of people believe women do not progress because they are too modest about their achievements and don't put themselves forward to top roles as readily as men.

In the study, The Confidence Gap, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman found that women tend to apply for a promotion only when they met 100% of the qualifications. Men apply when they met, on average, 50%. This study also found that women are seen as more effective when they held senior-level management positions. The researchers contend that this is due to a “double standard of competence", where some people presume that women leaders have to be extra competent to get into top positions.

When looking for leaders in any profession, skills and experience do matter more than gender. However, in some industries, the pool of talent to draw on is not very diverse. The women I’ve used as examples in this article are leaders in their fields. They have exemplary CVs and are widely admired and respected for their mix of skills and experience. It would be very difficult to argue that any of them have been appointed because of their gender.

In the world of sport, as in the world of business, a high-profile woman in an influential role is still often judged on the basis of her gender. However, we are moving towards a world where everyone is judged on their ability. And this is good news for all of us – not just women.

Nicky Little is head of leadership at Cirrus