8 March 2019

Where are all the female leaders? What we need to do to find them.

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day and applaud the extraordinary accomplishments  women around the world have achieved. We salute the strong female leaders we see increasingly emerging in the fields of business, politics, industry, and the arts.

Women are seizing opportunities as never before, so why are we still under-represented at the highest professional levels?

My experience.

I was the first woman on the executive management board at Siemens in the Netherlands.  You might have expected me to feel intimidated, but ,= that wasn’t the case. My predecessor had given me some sound advice: “Stay the way you are. Don’t overcompensate and don’t compromise yourself.”

So, I did stick to my guns and I didn’t change my approach and I didn’t feel intimidated. But I did sometimes feel excluded.

It’s human nature to form club cultures, to gravitate to people who are like you. In my experience, a break in the meeting, or on arrival or leaving, my male colleagues would naturally group together to discuss topics (often football) that interested them, but generally didn’t interest me.

The danger of this is when everyone thinks alike, nothing changes. If everyone in one group is similar, there is no challenge. There is no diversity of ideas, and that can weaken a company’s position.

With this widely acknowledged in the corporate world you might ask: where are all the women?

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Truth or myth?

Women are well represented in senior management: myth.

Despite an improvement in the last 10 years, women are still under-represented at board level.

The remedy to this isn’t to arbitrarily promote women to meet a quota, we need to learn why we aren’t rising through the corporate pipeline.  If there is little difference in how well girls perform against boys at school, why aren’t we seeing an equal flow from entry level to the boardroom?

The gender pay gap is real: truth.

Caring responsibilities are still shared unequally causing inequality in pay.

A carer should never be penalised for wanting to be a carer. However, if we take starting a family as an example, that critical first promotion often happens at the same time as deciding to have a child. With men typically being a bit older, they will already have been in work longer and  earn more, so it’s the woman in this situation who ends up compromising her career ambitions.

Once this decision has been made, it’s hard for her to get back on the career ladder. When she does return to work it’s often to part-time hours to allow her to continue as principal carer and with part-time work comes a pro rata salary, which leads to a greater pay gap.

She’s also more likely to forego promotions, concerned that her working hours won’t be accommodated in a different role. This is precisely the point where she starts to feel static in an organisation and where a man without the same caring responsibilities will start to push himself confidently up the career ladder to more reward and more pay.

We can overcome this by promoting flexible working, educating our workforce about the positives of diversity, and designing roles that work for everyone.  

Women aren’t natural leaders: myth.

Companies are most effective to have a combination of “masculine” and “feminine” styles. Women are different and lead differently to men, and that’s not wrong. Women are great leaders because they are more inclined to listen and take an inclusive and democratic approach to decision-making, while men tend to take more assertive and pro-active action. Neither are wrong! Diversity in leadership promotes the wellness of an organisation

Diversity is a gift.

Strength is in diversity. Performance is in diversity.

There is power in a diverse group. We benefit from different angles to problems and profit from alternative views to solutions.

When I joined the board at Siemens UK in 2016, it was already fairly diverse and that felt great. Siemens is forward thinking in creating inclusivity and has made significant investment in diversity education. But there is still a lot to do, and we can do more. The focus is on changing behaviour. Everyone’s opinion matters and we want to hear them equally from our male and female colleagues.

We don’t have to sacrifice to achieve.

Perhaps 10 or 20 years ago there was a place for the ‘motherhood instead of career’ argument. But it’s easier now than ever before to be in contact with the world 24/7. There is a level of interconnectivity that allows us all to have an equal balance of everything that’s important in our lives.

The only limitations are the ones we place on ourselves. We often feel that if we’re not putting the right amount of time spending withour friends and families or achieving in the workplace then we’re not doing it right. How productive are we, though, if we don’t pause to consider and recharge? 

We’re working in an era where a healthy work-life balance is respected and even encouraged. We need to embrace this as an opportunity and stamp out the notion that extreme sacrifice is the only route to success.

Flexibility increases productivity.

Productivity does not equate to desk time. Flexible working hours, part-time work, and work-from-home schemes are offered by Siemens but with minimal uptake. As a leader I encourage my team (both men and women) to adapt their working day to the times when they’re most productive, when they’re at their best. Successful business is about output and performance, to be there when it really matters, not the conventional 9 to 5.

The final word.

On International Women’s Day, as a female leader, I want to say this: we must become more inclusive if we want our women – and our men – to achieve their potential.

We must judge people on capability and what they contribute to business, not life choices or circumstance. It should be a gift to hear different voices in our meeting rooms and boardrooms.

Siemens’ brand – Ingenuity for Life – is about how we positively impact peoples’ lives through more than 170 years of inventiveness and originality. To do that, to be ingenious, we must continue to challenge outdated attitudes and beliefs to get the very best out of our people. To create ingenuity, we embrace diversity.

Find out more about Diversity & Inclusion at Siemens: http://www.siemens.com/diversity

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