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More Women Are Sitting At Decision Making Tables.But Are They Changing The Decisions Being Made?

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at August 23, 2021

When more women sit at decision making tables, better decisions are made.

The claim that women make great leaders and are good for business isn’t just feminist rhetoric. Multiple studies show that women possess valuable leadership – particularly for turbulent times like these which require a very ‘human touch’ – and that greater gender diversity in executive teams and on corporate boards is positively associated with stronger financial performance, including higher profits and stock market returns.

Yet despite progress in recent years which has seen more women occupying a seat at top tables (women now occupy, on average 22% of board seats globally, 20% in the US), there’s still a long way to go.

Addressing gender inequity in every sphere of influence is a complex issue requiring a complex, multi-levered solution. While many organizations scramble to improve the optics of diversity in their ranks – particularly in more visible senior roles – putting women (and those from all minority groups) into positions for which they are ill prepared is a short-term fix that risks them being marginalized, unsuccessful and can ultimately highly counterproductive over the longer term.

Addressing the larger systemic biases and barriers that have long worked against women is crucial to leveling the playing field and providing an equity of opportunity. Of course, we have examples of women who have defied the odds and risen to top tables. So clearly it can be done. But it must be done as part of a comprehensive strategy to transform the cultures within organizations to nurture talent and to support those who find the going tougher.

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Such strategies should guard against the lure of quick fixes. In recent years I’ve heard numerous anecdotes of organizations putting female candidates into roles for which they are wholly unprepared in an attempt to meet metrics and win DEI awards. Only last week I was told of a HR director who opted not to proceed with performance managing an underperforming woman for fear of the ramifications. Cultures that lack the integrity and courage to promote accountability don’t serve anyone, least of all those who are not succeeding in their roles.  As many senior female leaders have shared with me, they have no wish to be promoted because of their gender. They want to earn it and once they have, they want to be respected for the value they bring. Period.

Clearly there is no over-night formula for leveling a playing field that has long made it easier for men to rise. Rather it must be a long-term strategy that invests in not just the recruitment of a diverse slate of people, but an ongoing investment in their success (sponsorship, mentorship, PL responsibilities) balanced with rigorous and fair performance management systems. Not rewarding those who work hard and deliver results is the ultimate demotivator.

Supporting women is not just nice thing to do, it’s commercially smart and serves society as a whole. As such, the value of DEI initiatives that help women realize their potential far transcends good optics on year end reports and stockholder meetings. As such, supporting the advancement of women top tables is less important than the value they are able contribute once there.

To that end, there is a compelling case to strengthen the pipeline of women to the top so that they can achieve the 33% critical mass required to influence outcomes and harness the immense value of genuine diversity.  

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California’s quota system, introduced in 2018 mandating that publicly traded companies to have at least one female board director (or face a $100,000 fine) has shown efficacy in raising the number of women on boards. However, research shows that perceptions of tokenism only work against women (or any minority) unless they are perceived to be legitimately occupying their roles.

To that end companies DEI strategies must do more than just work to meet the metrics but provide an ecosystem that supports women while also ensuring performance management systems are not perceived as actively rewarding one group at the expense of another.  Rather such systems should be aimed at empowering and unlocking the potential in everyone.

Plugging plug the leaky pipeline is a vital part of this.  

Many organizations actively recruit over 50% women at graduate level due to the strong drop off of women up the managerial pipeline. The causes for this ‘leaky pipeline’ are numerous but a significant contributor is the decision women make to ‘opt out’ when they begin having children. Unfortunately, this generally coincides with the same period of time when companies are looking to promote their ‘hi-po’ employees into management roles that develop the crucial leadership and PL skills sought after at the c-suite and board level.

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While the Covid-19 pandemic created a ‘she-session’ in 2020, it also normalized remote work and flexible work arrangements which, hopefully, will make it easier for women to continue careers during the particularly demanding years of early motherhood, in the years ahead.  

A second core strategy to improving DEI and advancing women is ensuring they are equitably remunerated. Not only does this ameliorate against perceptions of tokenism but it motivates other women further down the ladder. A new study of the UK’s biggest FTSE 100 companies found that female board directors are being paid only just slightly over a quarter of that received by their male counterparts (£237,000 vs £875,900.)  While this large disparity in remuneration is largely due to the majority of female directors holding non-executive positions, the pay gap between executive directors is still striking, with female executive directors receiving 40% less than their male peers.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg said that women belong in all places where decisions are being made. Ginsberg’s remarkable story of overcoming entrenched misogyny is testament to the fact that women posses every bit as much of the courage required to change the world for the better as men.

While those in decision making roles hold a profound obligation to create a more equitable environment for women to rise, each of us can do our part.

By stepping up. By speaking up. By challenging double standards and amplifying the voice of all who’ve not been fully heard.

After all, the social and economic empowerment of women isn’t just good for women, it’s good for everyone.

Margie Warrell, PhD, is a bestselling author, women’s leadership advisor and keynote speaker. She is hosting the Live Brave Women’s Weekend this November 12-14. Check out her latest book Stop Playing Safe: How to be braver in work, leadership and life.


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