Women in business: a 30-year rise to the top

‘They kept telling us we were not qualified to make the big decisions. We did not understand strategy, we lacked vision and guts. It is time for women to stop buying into this myth that we are not ready for top positions.’ 

According to Sally Helgesen, who has been working with women in leadership for 30 years, this was one of the most powerful statements made by a speaker in the 2008 Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, exemplifying the attitude that permeated the event.

Since then, whilst more and more women have risen to leadership positions, female representation remains rather uneven: women have a strong presence in support functions, whereas men hold on to leading roles in operations, research & development and similar. In the first half of 2020, 40% of HR director positions were filled by women compared to Chief Marketing Officers (17%) and Chief Information Officers (16%).

What is  interesting to note, is that the gap in male/female representation does not start from the hiring process, but rather can be attributed to what Mercer defined as a ‘leaky pipeline for women leadership’: in the however many steps that separate support staff from executive level, female presence is cut in half. 

Since the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society which Sally attended in 2008, much has changed in the business world for women; however attention to leadership diversity may end up being a collateral victim of the uncertainty that global economies are facing at the moment. Over the past decade, multiple surveys proposed within the business world as well as to the general public have awarded women with higher perceived trustworthiness than men, however confirmed that men are still considered more capable of leading in times of crisis.

This attitude is deeply rooted in decades of shared business practices: men have always been in charge of world economy, so the business world sees their way of leading as the only viable option to sail through turbulent times. As a result, since women started consistently entering the business world in the 1980’s-90’s, they have been encouraged to suppress all those traditionally female behaviors and personality traits to adopt attitudes typically attributed to men, as those where the criteria they would have been evaluated on, and hence the only way they could be accepted and successful.

Even literature addressing career women, such as ‘The Managerial Woman’, ‘Games Mother Never Taught You’ and the self-explicative ‘How To Talk Make’, endorsed this kind of approach, advising women to ‘leave their values at home’, as those same skills and ways of communicating that were useful to them in managing a family had no place in competitive workplaces. The same had to be considered true with regards to how a female presented themselves through their behaviors, reactions and appearance when interacting with male colleagues: sports metaphors and sober skirt-suits received a green-light, whereas getting offended at typical male ‘locker room talk’ was a strong no-go.

Things started to change with the mid-2000’s crisis, when it became clear that the aggressive, reckless risk-taking leadership style of the so-far unbeatable Wall Street leaders was the cause of the dramatic situations that business was facing. In addition to this, a few ‘enlightened’ writers pointed out how a number of women had spotted misconduct in their industries and tried to alert their supervisors, but were dismissed without particular care. 

All of this came together in the realization that changing economic scenarios required a corresponding change in leadership skills, which would be facilitated by some of behaviors that women would typically show in offices. Notably among others, the ability of building strong relationships across levels and a preference for an inclusive approach to communication and leadership.

Having their unique approach recognized and validated was a huge step for women to start filling more senior positions, however women still felt that they needed to prove themselves, much more than men did. For them, demonstrating their competence remained the pre-requisite for stepping into a leadership role, much more than for their male colleagues, a difference that became so evident to be given the name of ‘confidence gap’.

Undoubtedly, higher confidence in and recognition of female leaders’ skills worked wonders in increasing the presence of women in senior positions, but there was one more thing standing in the way of women really becoming relevant in their companies: what is commonly known as ‘queen bee’ mentality. The concept ‘women supporting women’ was still regarded with some suspicion, both due to the scarcity of accessible leadership positions that boosted competition, and because showing a supportive, nurturing side almost took away from women professionalism.

In early 2000’s, solidarity among women really started to gain momentum, and so did organizations’ attention to creating more structured programs focusing on women leadership.  Women could finally live up to their potential. Another element that advanced this process came when women started looking at men as allies, rather than enemies, proving that the old cliché that ‘unity is strength’ actually has some truth to it. Examples can be found in global movements that started inside the business world, but quickly expanded way beyond that, such as #MeToo and #HeForShe. The first, focused on harassment on the workplace, gained momentum when women started publicly speaking up, and got final seal of validation when men started standing by their female colleagues, vouching for measures to be taken to solve this issue. #HeForShe, instead, is intrinsically based on the need for men to support women in order to reach gender equality, in and out of the office, demonstrating once more the importance of man alliance.

At the dawn of 2020, women in business had never been in a better position: the world economic scene counted multiple extremely influential female figures (Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardem, Mette Frederiksen and Tsai Ing-Wen to name a few), and so did the Telco industry (Funke Opeke, founder of Main Street Technologies, and Alexandra Rasch, founder and CEO of Caban Systems, awarded with Woman of the Year and Rising Star prizes in Global Women in Telco & Tech Awards 2020 are amazing examples of this trend). The spread of this year’s pandemic, however, adds some uncertainty to what could have been a glowing moment: will the business world sail through this crisis maintaining the same trust in women, or will it fall back in the all pattern of hanging on to men to lead through difficult times?

This truly represents a turning point for women position, and it will be extremely interesting to see it unfolding in the coming months. 

Catalyst, Quick Take: Women in Management (August 11, 2020)
Strategy Business, The evolution of women’s leadership (September 14, 2020)

The WICT Network Europe

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