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Does Global Economic Calamity Help or Hurt Women’s Advancement into Top Leadership Jobs?

Companies with more women at the top do better in good times and bad. Use this crisis as an opportunity to make necessary changes for the better.

“Forget it,” said my friend Allison. “This is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  People these days are interested in the bottom line, not touchy feely stuff.  They are not interested in issues of women and leadership, or helping women to get to the top.” 

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My friend Alison is smart, sophisticated, and well-educated.  She even has an MBA from a top-tier school.  Is she right?  She is certainly expressing a sentiment that I have heard from more than a few people recently: we don’t have time to worry about this gender equity thing when all attention must be placed on the business.  Implicit in this attitude, of course, is the assumption that helping women to play a larger leadership role is somehow, well, window-dressing, politically correct, or just a nice thing to do.  What this attitude excludes is the possibility that allowing women to participate fully and completely to their best abilities is part of the answer to various crises around the world.

Consider the following: companies that have at least 25% women at the executive level enjoy a 35% higher return on equity than their industry peer group, and 34% higher total return to shareholders than their industry peer group.  This research was done by Catalyst , a research think tank that focuses on issues of women in the workplace.   And if the company strategy depends on innovation, the evidence is also unequivocal that gender-balanced teams deliver measurably better innovation outcomes.

Are short term pressures combined with outmoded thinking – or little thinking at all — making it harder for women to be part of the solution?

The evidence so far is only anecdotal, but it seems that some companies are in fact using this crisis as a way to re-organize women into positions of greater power and influence.

Ellen Kumata, Managing Director of Cambria Consulting here in Boston recently told me the story of a Fortune 100 CEO that she coaches.  This man completely “gets” the strategic imperative for women at the highest levels of decision-making.  “When he looks at his strategy of going global,” she reported, “it is crystal clear to him that the top of the house cannot just be the mid-western white males he’s got. He knows that he needs diversity of thinking and a variety of perspectives. He knows that he can only do this by having a variety of people in the decision-making process.”

Other partial confirmation comes from Barbara Annis, chair-elect of the Woman’s Leadership Board at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, co-author of Leadership and the Sexes, and author of Same Words, Different Language.  In her words: “We are seeing two reactions to tough economic times.  One is a complete retraction, a total focus only in the short term, a focus only in the bottom line.”   The other reaction is to view this crisis as a priceless opportunity to make change happen.  Keeping confidential the identity of her client, Barbara Annis shared with me a conversation that she had with the CEO a major global financial institution.  “This is our chance to get women to the top,” he said. “We’ll cancel other people initiatives, but not this one.”   

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It is tough work indeed for women to enter into the very competitive alpha male group at the top of these global entities, but with the enlightened support of key men who are there, it can happen – especially in the toughest economic times.

In tomorrow’s blog, I will share some more concrete observation and advice on how to make that happen.  Comments? Please write me at ksweetman@rbl.net And check out our new book Leadership Code  at www.leadershipcodebook.com.

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