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Female Talent Makes Headway in Leadership

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The success that women have achieved as executives, middle managers, and entrepreneurs provides an example for others to follow in the promotion of future generations. The recipe for tearing down barriers and fostering social and professional empowerment includes networking, working in networks, financial training, and work-life balance.

Training and skill development are essential ingredients for anyone who wants to occupy a key position. For women, however, the journey up the corporate ladder is facilitated by special factors, including the right kind of selection policies starting at the entry level and—depending on the particular circumstances of the positions in question—measures to discourage presenteeism, as well as objective-based performance evaluation systems and meritocratic promotion policies based on talent, competence, and attitude. With a view to providing solutions that inspire women, institutions, and companies to support women’s professional development, it is important to promote and develop venues for reflection on these issues as well as activities aimed at analyzing barriers and defining solutions that will help women gain access to business leadership posts and encourage networking.

In venues that foster networking, we often hear questions about why so few women hold leadership positions and what can be done to address this long-standing problem. At a recent forum organized by IE and Woman Talent, Celia de Anca, Director of the Center for Diversity at IE Business School, explained that ten thousand years ago, when human beings were hunter-gatherers, men’s and women’s roles were more similar. With the advent of the agricultural revolution, the functions of the two sexes diverged, leaving women in charge of household affairs. The next segregation, which occurred during the Enlightenment, had to do not with functions but with qualities. With the rise of reason, traditionally feminine talents such as intuition and sensitivity were excluded from public life and immense areas of knowledge were thus pushed into the background. This was not a conspiracy—Western society was evolving towards science, making it necessary to cast intuition aside. This history led to the two sexes cultivating different sets of functions and qualities. This rule was broken when women left the home and entered the workforce; the problem, of course, is that men have not entered the realm of household affairs at the same pace.

It is important for women to stop demanding so much of themselves and instead become more self-confident and visible. It is also crucial that decision-making bodies take steps to become more diverse, starting with an overhaul of selection processes.

Combination of barriers

Equality has nothing to do with a country’s level of development. The combination of internal and external barriers to positions of responsibility varies from one society to the next, and from one individual to the next. Advanced countries have fewer external obstacles such as legislation and stereotypes, but internal impediments such as insecurity and lack of motivation tend to make up the difference. It is essential to realize that women will have an impact on business design and decision-making to the extent that universities produce women capable of leading major industries.

Female executives agree that women must resist seeing themselves as victims and maintain a positive attitude in the search for solutions to boost female advancement in leadership. It is important for women to stop demanding so much of themselves and instead become more self-confident and visible. It is also crucial that decision-making bodies take steps to become more diverse, starting with an overhaul of selection processes. Women have the innate ability to take charge of a household; indeed, historically they have done precisely that. But in a business setting, women sometimes lack the self-esteem to take the reins and show greater solidarity towards their fellow women. Other important factors include training in digital skills—an area in which women’s presence remains minimal—and innovative models of flexibility.

As for economic and purchasing power, it is clear that Spain’s largest publicly traded firms have very few women on their boards of directors. Companies need human resources departments that, with the support of the management team, are capable of implementing meritocratic promotion and career-support plans. Moreover, this strategy should not focus solely on female executives and middle managers; it should start at the entry level, making it possible to select women with skills and potential from the bottom up. The company can then support these women with in-house professional development, thereby avoiding the dreaded “drain” of talent and professionals.

Another aspect—already mentioned above, but deserving of further comment—is presenteeism, an extremely common problem in more traditional companies. This practice should be discouraged through the introduction of productivity-oriented policies. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that financial training is vital for anyone who wishes to reach a senior management position. This sort of training also makes it easier to accept the risks involved in joining a board of directors or general management team.

In communication—a skill perpetually associated with leadership—one problem for women (but not for men) is that image is often valued over substance. Education is one solution to combat this reality: aesthetics needn’t be perceived as a negative, but this alone cannot form the basis of development.

One barrier to female leadership in the political sphere is the fact that women tend to position themselves in non-representative areas, where the “glass ceilings” in decision-making bodies are real. It is generally agreed that, after centuries of exclusively male models of political leadership, the female leadership function has been trivialized, thereby preventing women from occupying important positions in world politics. This is why we need politically trained women who understand how positive it is to act as role models, so that society will start to see more and more examples of women making decisions and exercising power.

Eighty percent of men’s business ventures are born of opportunity, whereas 80% of women’s are due to necessity.

Working in networks

The motivation to build alliances and work in networks with other women is inversely proportional to age; today’s women don’t see it as a priority. When your career is on track, your need to seek out allies goes dormant and you fail to value the personal-development benefits of doing so. Women are aware of the importance of building relationships in this way, but they do not link it to instruments of personal development as readily as men do.

Quotas are another major topic of debate. Female executives believe that the goal is not to go through the motions by putting women in charge of less important areas but rather for women to achieve greater prominence in important parts of the company. It’s not enough to have a microphone; you also need a good place to use it.

Entrepreneurship is an area in which age is an additional barrier for women. It is important to have an active attitude. If you cannot get support from people in your community, coaching is worthwhile. And don’t forget networking, a powerful tool that men use very well and that women are becoming more skilled at. Various well-managed guided networks and initiatives have emerged in this area. It seems clear that training in entrepreneurial attitudes and competencies—beyond the traditional academic offering—is lacking. It is important to be aware and prepared, as the obstacles will vary by sector.

In business, success is not always linear; now more than ever, it comes in many different colors. People become entrepreneurs either in response to opportunities—when a niche market or new technology appears, for example—or out of necessity. Curiously, 80% of men’s business ventures are born of opportunity, whereas 80% of women’s are due to necessity. In the future, however, success will take multiple forms. Insofar as men and women follow different paths towards this goal, we will learn to tear down both internal and external barriers so that everyone—in either the traditional or the aspirational model—can find his or her way.

Finally, research has shown that the normative model of the past is still with us today, but in the future there will be many different paths thanks to the speed with which technology advances and work models evolve. Sometimes the status quo proves to be stronger than the need to knock down barriers. Still, we must be aware of the barriers’ existence before we can do anything to eliminate them.

 

Margarita Velásquez, Director of Strategic Relations at IE Business School.

© IE Insights.

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