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Bringing diversity into tomorrows leaders: How to make it happen

16 Jun 2014


Professor Lynda Gratton outlined some of the challenges women business leaders continue to face in an inspirational talk in Hong Kong.

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Speaking at a talk for The Women’s Foundation, a Hong Kong based non-profit organisation, Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice in Organisational Behaviour, London Business School, highlighted that a substantive breakthrough has yet to be made in the presence of women at the top levels of business.

In the US, while 50-60% of workers entering organisations are women, the percentage of women as board directors remains in the 15% range and few organisations have moved beyond that. While the world of work as a whole is changing in a set of dynamic ways, affected by increased specialisation, longer lives and geographic clustering of talent, there evidently needs to be further action to make a breakthrough in the near future.

Professor Gratton outlined the complex schema women face in the workplace, where four persistent stereotypes remain barriers to women seeking leadership positions: women as mothers, women as poor career navigators, women as a minority and women as poor networkers. Corporations looking to promote equality and diversity often tackle one or two of these areas, but all four are important factors to consider.

As mothers, the balance of work and domestic responsibilities still tilts to women, while the expectation that senior executives are available 24/7 makes the work/life balance difficult. Noting that non-mothers typically have a similar career trajectory to men, the challenge for companies is to make workplace flexibility a reality as well as offering greater support mechanisms, such as parental leave.

For career development, research has shown that women often don’t negotiate after the age of 35, meaning that they do not secure the best package available. Furthermore, a break in the career path for several years can impact on client continuity and current industry knowledge. Career customisation, while still a nascent development, can provide more room to broaden the roles available. Furthermore, gender diversity at all levels, not just the top, helps create better opportunities for all.

Any minority, whether women or otherwise, is impacted negatively in comparison to the majority. Professor Gratton noted that 33% seems to be the key turning point threshold where negative stereotypes can be overcome. There is a compelling business case to be made using evidence which shows that gender diversity benefits the business, as less homogenous groups deal better with complex tasks. Coupled with a visible commitment by senior management, the issue can be addressed.

Lastly, Professor Gratton observed that in many cases women tend to network across an organisation, while men network up. A minority of women in senior leadership makes it natural to network with peers, but having top female executives there to help mentor and encourage more junior colleagues makes a real difference. Interestingly, cross-gender mentoring between companies, rather than just within a business, has also been shown to provide tangible benefits and broaden the available support network.