Positioning women for leadership | White & Case LLP International Law Firm, Global Law Practice
Positioning women for leadership

Positioning women for leadership

If this is the economic case for promoting women, why has the number of women being promoted to leadership positions stalled recently? It's a frustrating reality all industries are dealing with.

Here's a story I saw once on one of those tacky tea towels you'd love to own but wouldn't be caught dead actually buying. It read something like this: 

"If the Three Wise Men had been Three Wise Women, they would have shown up on time, baked a casserole, cleaned the stable, brought appropriate gifts, and there would be peace on earth."

It's a guaranteed, chuckle-inducing way to start a presentation, and all the more amusing because it's true.

More than half a dozen global studies now point to the value of employing women not as a PC/diversity issue but as a bottom-line consideration. The most recent study came in 2016 from the International Monetary Fund and shows European companies that employ more senior women make more money than their competitors. 

The IMF's Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, told me the causality is self-evident— companies that make the effort to promote more women to senior posts are opening the door to the widest possible talent pool. In a world in which women are increasingly better educated than men, this becomes ever more relevant. Those companies then also benefit from the diversity of management experience that, business surveys show, leads to better decision-making. 

The IMF is merely reiterating what earlier surveys have found (among them, Columbia University, Pepperdine, Goldman Sachs). More women improves performance by every measure of profitability. 

If this is the economic case for promoting women, why has the number of women being promoted to leadership positions stalled recently? It's a frustrating reality all industries are dealing with. One male business leader suggested to me recently that the studies must be wrong because otherwise market forces would inevitably have led to a 50/50 gender division at the top.

I confess that his question so troubled me that I went back to the experts for more research. Their conclusion is twofold: 1) Market forces don't always work perfectly and 2) the "old boys club" (Mme. Lagarde's expression) is so entrenched that it will take a lot of time and effort to break it down—though the benefits are worth it. 

The latter point is indicative of our own unconscious biases. Michael will replace himself with Joe or Robert, but not with Mary or Khalid. But something else is going on, too, and that is something women can control. 

Let's go back to our natty Christmas story. What happens if the Three Wise Women hadn't applied for the job? You can imagine the ad goes out asking for a special candidate to take on a globe-changing role. The requirements are clear: The ideal applicant will have knowledge of astronomy, excellent navigation skills, and a facility with newborn infants.

Bethany looks at the ad and thinks to herself, "I've got a degree in astrophysics, but I never finished my master's. I'm great with navigation and have three kids, so that's fine. But that astronomy part—I just think I'm not quite up to it.” So she tosses the ad in the trash and gets back to her rather unchallenging day job. 

Our research for the Confidence Code documented a confidence chasm between men and women when it comes to the workplace.

Her colleague, let's call him Balthazar, looks at the same ad and thinks to himself, "Astronomy, how hard can that be? Just look up at the night sky, it'll be fine. Navigation? That's what GPS is for. Infants? Lucky I took my nephew to the game last week." He applies, gets the job, they write a song about him and history is made.

Funny, and painfully true. Time and again, women hold themselves back from taking tough assignments, big risks, asking for pay raises or promotions—all because they don't think they are ready/have the skills/are smart enough.

Our research for the Confidence Code documented a confidence chasm between men and women when it comes to the workplace. Columbia University calls it honest overconfidence: Men tend to overestimate their abilities by something like 30 percent, whereas women routinely underestimate theirs, and it is keeping us from going as far as our talents suggest we should.

If we want to get more women into leadership positions, it is knowledge that is very useful, to both women and men.

 

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