It is Time to Raise the Bar – and Time for Women Leaders to Step Up

Women Executive leading a meeting

Looking at news headlines over the past couple of years, it would seem that diversity in both race and gender is doing quite well in corporations around the world. Yahoo was applauded for bringing on Marissa Mayer as their new president and recent online information sources have been filled with the news that Satya Nadella was appointed as the new CEO of Microsoft. While both of these appointments are indeed good news, they unfortunately are still the exception much more than the rule. Great strides still need to be made to bring true race and gender equality into the workplace.

The questions could certainly be raised, ‘why now? And why is this such a big deal?’ The simple response is that if we are not representing the whole population in the board room there will always be a tendency to create business around only a certain group of people and not the population as a whole. Governments in certain parts of the world are waking up and beginning to realize that, to make a real difference, quotas – particularly for bringing women into the boardroom – will need to be put in place to get the winds of change blowing in the right direction.

In his article on Satya Nadella, writer Bryce Covert explains that white men continue to dominate board seats among Fortune 500 companies and account for nearly three-quarters of all board seats. These figures have surprisingly not progressed in eight years. Six European countries have therefore set gender quotas for women on boards and more EU countries are set to do the same, while Japan has started an ambitious initiative to reach 30 percent of its CEO positions occupied by women. The United States has not implemented any such measures as of yet.

Gender diversity helps performance

Though setting quotas and seeking more gender equality is good for the human side of business, it is also proving to be true for bottom-line profits. In their 2012 Gender Diversity and Corporate Performance Report, the Credit Suisse Research Institute states, “While it is difficult to demonstrate definitive proof, no one can argue that the results in this report are not striking. In testing the performance of 2,360 companies globally over the last six years, our analysis shows that it would on average have been better to have invested in corporates with women on their management boards than in those without. We also find that companies with one or more women on the board have delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing, better average growth and higher price/book value multiples over the course of the last six years.’

So does all of this gender equality talk mean that men should be pushed aside, given less chances and punished for bad behavior? Study after study has shown, it is the mix of genders that makes for the best business results, clearly showing that combining the strengths of both sexes is the ideal solution. It is not a question of putting one part of the population down so another can rise; it is about bringing everyone up to an equal status, alignment, equality and complementarity.

Shortage of women?

The tide is turning in certain parts of the world and women leaders are being sought out more and more, but is it possible that there is actually a shortage of women ready to take on these roles? With the release last year of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, the question of whether women really want to step into leadership roles was brought to the forefront. Are women ready to be taking their seat at the table?

It is clear that women executives need to be trained to take on the posts that will be opening up, not only in solid knowledge but also in the “soft skills” they require to prepare for futureboard positions and leadership duties. One way to get more women into executive roles is an Executive MBA; graduates of such programs credit them with boosting a broad range of knowledge and skills, including increasing their self-confidence.

Monique Whitney, a second-year EMBA student at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University recently launched her own marketing business and says the training played a big part in making that happen.

“The MBA program helped prepare me for my new business, and it did elevate my confidence level,” Whitney said. “I went into the program to better speak ‘the language of business,’ which as far as I could tell at the time, had to do with accounting and finance. The courses have greatly increased my ability to speak peer-to-peer with CEOs about the full experience of running a business — not just the financial aspects, but also the organizational aspects, the supply-chain aspects and the public-policy aspects. The courses opened my eyes to some fairly complex topics.”

Sherry Roberts, a Kellogg-WHU EMBA alumna, said the  degree made it possible to launch her business, The Longest Stay, in 2012. The online company features luxury pieces of furniture and accessories online from the best brands in Europe.

“I had a technology background and a prestigious EMBA degree, but I knew nothing in interior design, the furniture industry, or even really how an Internet business worked in 2012,” Roberts said. “I recalled the courage and efforts it took me to pursue an EMBA while working full-time and the thought how it gave me the strength to take on this new entrepreneurial challenge. It took me some time to learn about the industry but, thanks to my EMBA education, I was able to write a business plan, and most importantly I was equipped with the business and marketing skills necessary to make my enterprise successful.”

So, whether or not companies in the United States adopt more forceful approaches to achieving genre diversity, women must be ready, and many see the necessity for women to step up a commitment to training. “Clarity, confidence and conviction lie at the heart of their success,” said Fiona Deane, MBA Recruitment Manager at Henley Business School, University of Reading.

About Dawn Bournand

Dawn Bournand Is the editor-in-chief of the QS TopExecutive Guide and associate director of the EMBA Department at QS. Dawn has trained as a coach and enjoys combining her expertise on the world of business and higher education with her knowledge of career and life coaching. She has also spoken internationally on the subject of women in leadership and strives to help women find their place in the evolving world of business.
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