The appointment of Laura Schwab to be President of Aston Martin in USA, only the second woman after Mary Barra of GM to become an automotive company CEO in USA. This poses the question why are there so few women leaders in the automotive world and indeed elsewhere?
After over 30 years as a leader in the military, business and government, most of it developing leaders, my observations are that the capability of women to be effective leaders is just a great as men. In my experience when identifying and selecting future leaders and in their subsequent development women often out perform men in areas where collaborative behaviours are required for success rather than competitive ones. This is confirmed by multiple studies around the world. Women tend to be more naturally attuned to this approach than many men. As the optimal behaviour in both society and organisations moves further in this direction then the natural approaches women tend to use are more likely to be the route to success.
The fact that few women have got to the most senior levels in some industries and cultures is not therefore indicative of any inability of women to lead but the problems in culture and attitudes in those sectors and societies and their inability to recognise and unleash the power of women, 50% approximately of their population. That’s driven by out of date assumptions prevalent in many organisations and societies about how leaders deliver success that are just plain wrong when compared to the reality. There are still leaders in business who think that what is in effect “command and control” is still the best way to achieve success in 2019 when it’s more likely to degrade performance. Long held myths can persist despite contrary evidence from reality.
But the story is by no means consistent. Research by McKinsey, reflected by other studies, shows large discrepancies in the number of women at senior level in different countries. So the % of women in executive committee posts in the following countries is: USA – 22%, China – 20%, EU – 17%, India – 7%, Japan – 3%, Saudi Arabia – 2%
Clearly in even the USA there is an issue to be addressed, but some of the other figures are truly shocking. In 2019 Catalyst did a study of Women in S&P 500 companies at different levels. Again significant evidence of a major issue. % of women in S&P 500 at respective levels: CEO – 5%, On boards – 21%, Senior executives – 26%, 1st line & middle managers – 37%, Employees – 45%
There are many reasons why these figures are as they are, not just that organisations are failing to recognise the value of women as leaders. You can only promote people if they are present in the organisation and for multiple reasons the % of women in a specific sector maybe lower than others due to its attractiveness as a career and the impact of the education system steering girls and boys in different career directions, again based on myths and assumptions. In UK less than 10% of engineering professionals are women, but in Lativa and Bulgaria it’s more like 30%. The driver here is the education system reflecting societies stereotyping of potential careers of both men and women in UK, but it’s the same in many other countries. Some jobs are for men, some for women the myths go, again contrary to the evidence.
Does this matter from the performance perspective as well as the moral one ? The evidence is clear. Women often naturally take a different approach to getting things done to men when interacting with others. This diversity of perspective and action is now shown to have some significant benefit for organisations – companies with women on boards are 27% more likely to beat peers than those who don’t (McKinsey). But this also suggests that any diversity of thought, not just from women, is beneficial on boards as well. Men are not homogenous thinkers either. Diversity of thought drives success.
At its most simple, by not leveraging the full capability of women both organisations and societies fail to reach their full potential and that impacts everyone. In US and other western nations more effective involvement of women in the workforce could add 5 – 10% to GDP, in developing nations much more.
The business case for greater involvement from women, especially at senior levels, needs to overcome the false historical myths many still believe. It’s there, it’s powerful and it needs to be promoted.