Women in power: RESCU takes an inspiring look at the growing trend for women to come out on top in politics and the workforce

By Ginka Toegel, a professor at IMD Business School 

No matter what your politics, few women would have been unmoved by Julia Gillard’s appointment as Australia’s first female prime minister this year. Here, we look at the state of women’s leadership in Australia and around the world.

Gillard followed in the path of Iceland’s Vigdis Finnbogadottir who, 30 years ago, became one of the world’s first females to be elected head of state. Her election could have been a turning point for women in all professions – a sign that their leadership abilities are both as effective, and as well-regarded, as their male counterparts.

However, worldwide it might seem that there is little reason to be optimistic. While there is a slight upward trend in the number of women leaders, the overall figures are still very low.

Currently, of the 192 UN member countries, there are 8 female presidents, 9 female prime ministers, and 3 reigning queens, which means 10% female heads of state in total. However, in 2009, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women held 45.5% of the jobs in Australia and 45.5% of all managerial positions.

While at the middle-management level, women have made substantial progress, at the top management level the statistics are still quite depressing. In 2010, only 2.8 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives were female. In the FTSE 500, the statistics are even worse – only 1.8 percent of such companies are led by women.

The bright spots

Fortunately, there are some bright spots. In Norway, for example, about 44.2 percent of board members are women. But this has not come about by chance; in 2008, the country passed a law requiring publicly-listed companies to have boards comprising at least 40 percent women. Sweden doesn’t have a quota, but has introduced measures to help women balance work and life and is hoping to reach its 40 percent target by 2015.

Under Gillard’s leadership, Australia announced measures this July to help advance women into boards. Though a specific quota isn’t required, the legislation makes companies responsible for explaining gender diversity. Australia is seeking a 40% target for government boards.

The challenges we face and how to overcome them

The problem at the moment is that we have so few senior women in management positions that they are perceived as outsiders. This creates a kind of legitimacy gap, in that they do not fit the (male) stereotype of what it is to be a leader. This leads in turn to another problem, which is that male leaders tend to be associated with “agentic” behavior: they are more likely to be proactive, assertive, dominant, in control of the situation. Female leaders, by contrast, show what we call “communal values”: friendliness, support, warmth and a caring attitude. When we look at these two sets of values, it becomes clear that it is the agentic approach that we associate with leadership.

Many women come to the conclusion that, as a result of these stereotypes, the only way for them to be perceived to be legitimate leaders is to emulate male leaders. However, the real answer is not so straightforward. If women simply emulate men, they violate the gender stereotype, which creates a perception that they are being phony. This creates a real problem, and can lead to them being penalised for being inauthentic leaders. Women should instead blend both sets of characteristics. Indra Nooyi, the Chief Executive and Chairwoman of PepsiCo, does this very successfully; she can make tough decisions and is very assertive in negotiations, but her direct reports also describe her as extremely warm and caring.

Ginka’s final word

What then of the future? Well, despite the disappointing statistics I quoted at the beginning of this article, there are many good reasons to be positive. I strongly believe that the next 5 to 10 years will see a dramatic change for the better.

Ginka Toegel is Professor of Organisational Behavior and Leadership at IMD. Based in Switzerland, IMD is one of the top-ranked among business schools worldwide.

Another RESCU article by IMD:

The great career debate: should companies give us more vacation time…

More articles you may enjoy:

  1. Speaking your way up the corporate ladder
  2. Women paying for their gender as pay gap widens
  3. A new era of business ownership

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