Leadership: Bullshit and backlash

From time-to-time women in the executive leadership league win battle. But, notables like Facebook chief executive Sheryl Sandberg notwithstanding, they sure as hell aren’t winning the war.
In fact, couple of distinguished US legal academics, Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey, argued in recent Harvard Business Review blog that an emerging “powerful new feminist movement” aimed squarely at the highest levels of America’s professional world and led largely by high-powered women like Sandberg and New America Foundation president and Princeton University academic, professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, is already facing “backlash”.

This rise in executive feminism is, they wrote, “sorely needed”. Only 21 Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And women make up just 15 percent of Fortune 500 executive officers and law firm equity partners. “Waiting for women [to get to the top] isn’t working. Women [in the US] earn more college degrees than men, make up about 46 percent of the labour force, and hold more than half of managerial and professional positions. But men still run the world,” they complained.
Their outburst is understandable, but the situation is even worse in this part of the world. Women in lower and middle management roles in Australasia make up only fraction more than one third of the management population – up from 25 percent in 2002 but still well down on the US’ 50 percent.
At senior management levels the story is even grimmer. According to global consultancy Hay Group, females make up just nine percent of all senior executive positions in Australia, despite compelling evidence showing women make major difference to organisational performance.

America’s financial institution Goldman Sachs says Pacific region organisations lag behind the rest of the Western world in appointing women as senior managers. Only five chief executives of NZ’s top 100 companies are women. Similarly, there are only seven female CEOs in Australia’s top 200 ASX listed companies.

Goldman Sachs calculates that Australia and New Zealand could each boost their gross domestic product by 11 percent if they appointed more women to higher level management jobs.
To understand how to close this gender equity gap, Hay Group recently interviewed 27 Australian and New Zealand women who have successfully navigated their way into senior executive roles.
The study found that women are twice as likely as men to actively drive their own careers than to be internally head-hunted. Their greatest personal support came from their partners while managers and mentors were their primary source of professional back-up. Self confidence and personal courage is apparently high in women executives. They are strong leaders who articulate what performance they expect and they hold colleagues to account for delivering outcomes.
Two surprising findings emerged, according to Hay. Contrary to previous research, these women didn’t see work-life balance as barrier to advancing their careers. And they didn’t think HR programmes “delivered intended impacts”.

The irony of efforts by both the New Zealand and Australian Productivity Commissions to lift trans-Tasman productivity isn’t lost on Hay Group’s researchers who see the appointment of more women as critical productivity-boosting strategy. “Moving women into leadership positions has tangible impact on improving business performance, including lifting productivity,” they claim.
A Best Companies for Leadership Report commissioned by Hay Group and Bloomberg/Business Week in 2009 showed that two thirds of the companies rated in the top 20 “had high proportion of women in senior leadership jobs”. In their global survey, these same 20 companies produced eight times better shareholder returns than their peers over five years.

Evidence supporting more women in management and leadership imperative is, well, irrefutable.
Yet, as former Equal Employment Opportunities commissioner Dr Judy McGregor wrote in her 2012 Human Rights Commission report on Census of Women’s Participation: “Women are being short-changed by those setting targets on their behalf. There’s bleak picture of pale ambition for women’s progress in New Zealand…”

The Government, business and public and private sectors are setting “low bar” targets for women’s progress – some as low as aiming for 10 percent women’s representation in corporate governance by 2015. This appears to accept 90 percent male domination of governance “as norm”. McGregor also asked if it was okay for New Zealand to publicly aspire in 1998 to equal gender representation on government appointed statutory boards, why is just 45 percent acceptable now?
There is undoubtedly now policy backlash against protecting this country’s environment and finite resources. Perhaps we’ve also inadvertently given “mandate” to backlash against uppity and aspiring women. M

Reg Birchfield Life FNZIM is writer on leadership, governance and management. [email protected]

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