Why Gender-Conscious Discussions Are Imperative For The Future Of Leadership

It’s not just about more women, it’s about what women and men can build together

Why Gender-Conscious Discussions Are Imperative For The Future Of Leadership
[Image: Flickr user Ding Yuin Shan]

The leaders of tomorrow are managing a world that demands a different portfolio of skills than those that led current CEOs to the top.


Futurists and thought leaders are now challenging organizations to shift from the view of a linear future to a matrixed reality that demands different styles of leadership.

Several trends have been identified that signal a game change, and gender is a significant factor in all of them:

  • Never before have there been four generations–much less five–in the workplace, with a vastly different sets of values, beliefs, and expectations.

  • It is now possible to attract, acquire, use, and seamlessly integrate talent from around the world, and technology makes it possible to connect anyone anywhere asynchronously as a collaborator.

  • Societal pressure for organizations to be socially responsible is unprecedented. Social media can force change by making topics trend.

  • The world is facing a major shift in demographics, and under-utilizing 50% of the talent market is no longer feasible.

A Demographic Shift

The trend toward globalization of the workforce is projected to accelerate over the next 40 years, fueled by expected population declines in Germany, Italy, and Spain, according to the United Nations Population Division. Gender imbalance is rocking the social infrastructure of China and Japan’s economy, which is unsustainable without the integration of women into the workforce.

“One third of global CEOs polled recently said a shortage of talent had prevented their business from innovating effectively,” says Sibylle Rupprecht, executive director of the European Division of Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes inclusive workplaces.

“Using only half the deck of talent available to them does not make business sense when a company’s talent pool is a vital component of its success.”


New Context for Leadership

These profound shifts in global business require a new context for leadership. Leadership gurus have demonstrated that women are more likely than men to possess the qualities that are associated with future success: Women are more transformational, care more about developing their followers, listen to them and stimulate them to think “outside the box,” they are more inspirational, and they are more ethical.

In a new survey from Ketchum PR agency, participants ranked 14 leadership qualities by importance. Women outperformed men in 10 of these categories, leading in the top four key metrics.

The number of consumers who said female leaders perform best at . . .

  • Communicating in an open and transparent way: 62%
  • Leading by example: 57%
  • Admitting mistakes: 66%
  • Bringing out the best in others: 61%

The solution is not to toss out all the men and replace them with women. Global human capital will continue to be a 50/50 proposition. The better option is to foster gender partnerships that embrace the skills and leadership traits of 100% of the available talent. Both men and women benefit from becoming more conscious about the impact of gender on style, decision-making, and talent engagement.

Moving Toward Gender-Conscious Leadership

It takes a synergistic effort to change generations of culture. A key component is engaging men. Men are powerful stakeholders in maintaining the status quo, especially in those institutions that remain male-dominated. This means that men unconsciously undermine or obstruct efforts for women’s advancement if they are not engaged.


Seen in a positive way, men are also in a position to contribute enormously by confronting the very institutional blind spots and barriers that sustain gender inequality. Yet, even willing men can feel at a loss about how to create change. Men are often fearful of losing the respect of their male colleagues and uncertain how to support female colleagues without seeming patronizing or insulting.

Organizations can change this dynamic by creating a safe space for men to discuss their concerns, become aware of behaviors that undermine women, and gain support from other men to make a difference in the company.

Companies must continue to leverage women’s leadership by encouraging sponsorship and deploying strategies to bridge the female confidence gap. Leaders can increase the opportunity for women to be led and inspired by other women. Senior managers can insure that women’s perspectives are heard in meaningful ways on teams and in critical projects.

Men and women can begin to have gender-conscious conversations, open and courageous dialogue about the ways they can support each other going forward. Men should ask women for honest feedback about the barriers they face. Women should ask men how they want to be included in advancing women’s leadership.

When a global law firm held a forum for their associates to address concerns about their failure to make any women partners it was two men who delivered the message, even though part of their announcement was they had appointed a woman to the firm’s nominating committee. In a gender-conscious culture there would be safe space to have a conversation with these male leaders and help them understand the unconscious message they were sending: “we are still in control here.”


The knowledge gained from gender-conscious conversations can be applied to an assessment of the talent process for gender bias in attracting, hiring, developing, and promoting talent. Men and women can explore together what criteria may be unconsciously preventing women from being hired and promoted. Most importantly, managers can look for missed opportunities to incorporate gender perspectives in the design and implementation of business strategies.

Adding more women to leadership is an economic imperative. Including the gender perspective in decision-making and innovation is a game changer.

Robin Terrell is cofounder and Managing Partner of GenderAllies, created in response to a decade of stalled efforts in increasing the number of women in leadership. Robin co-founded an inventive collaborative, the Bay Area Inclusion Roundtable, a community of leaders and champions from leading Bay Area companies that has elevated the dialogue of inclusion.