Justin Hartley; Harvard MPA; Oxford MSc; Founder & CEO, Model Leadership
This article provides a male perspective on the representation of women as leaders around the world. The opportunity to contribute, in a small way, to the discussion of such an important topic is a privilege—but it is also perhaps a risky endeavor for a man. However, as a leadership specialist, I believe that shifting a paradigm requires wide discussion of potentially contentious, sensitive, and emotive issues. Such a discussion benefits from inclusivity and participation from many groups, not solely the group in focus. After all, such inclusivity is in itself a manifestation of equality.
I believe that we can work toward gender equality by engaging in seven major initiatives:
1. Changing Mindsets: A change in mindset regarding women as leaders needs to occur in both men and women. For men, a change in mindset is required to realize and accept that women are just as capable of being leaders as men, and that there should be no difference in how they are treated. Women need to develop higher confidence in their own abilities and increase their ambition and assertiveness when seeking appointments. Increasing the public’s awareness of efforts to promote gender diversity on company boards, especially within traditional hierarchical societies where diversity is still relatively new, will help enormously.
2. Increasing Accountability: Legislation, such as quarterly reporting requirements that oblige companies to disclose the number of female and male board directors, will create more transparency about gender inequities in the business world. Combined with evolving mindsets, this accountability will put pressure on companies to do better than their competitors in striving for increased women’s leadership representation. Organizations should be further held accountable by the application of consistent, agreed-upon metrics that measure effective leadership.
3. Transparent, Unbiased Selection Processes: The selection processes for boards and senior leadership positions must be clearly defined, transparent, and fair. Applicants must be able to rely on the fact that the best candidates will be selected and that there will be no bias toward men or women. Stringent protocols for these selection processes will help to counteract some of the discrimination and arbitrarily higher standards that women face, and will encourage more women to aspire to and apply for such positions.
4. Ongoing Development and Training at Every Level: It can sometimes be easier to increase diversity at the board level than in an organization overall. A greater focus on developing women’s leadership skills at every level, combined with an overall organizational perspective, is required. Investment in training and active support of women at the start of their careers will increase the pool of capable women who can fill leadership positions in the future. Investment throughout the organization for both men and women in the development of softer skills, such as relationship-building, self-advocacy, networking, respect, careful listening, and assertiveness, will also be beneficial.
5. Mentoring and Empowerment: Women mentors who can encourage and support the next generation of female leaders are a necessity. As the pool of trained and talented women increases in the future, more female mentors at the leadership level will be available to provide guidance and support for women at every level throughout their organizations.
6. Workplace Flexibility: Some studies indicate that women, for a variety of reasons, are more subject than men to burnout, stress, and exhaustion. In most of the world’s cultures, moreover, they are still burdened with a disproportionate share of domestic and familial responsibilities, vastly increasing their stress levels. At the same time, we have seen in both the COVID pandemic and the rise of the gig economy that, as a global society, we are quite capable of operating effectively with more flexible work arrangements. Many studies have found that workers can be more productive when working from home, at least for part of the week. If more organizations offered more flexible work arrangements, women might be better able to balance their many responsibilities, both professional and domestic, and not be forced to leave their careers prematurely.
7. Governmental Policy: Governmental policy is crucial in promoting an equality of professional opportunities. Having children must be encouraged by governments without being framed as an obstruction to women’s career progression, and motherhood must not be viewed as a restriction or deterrent that will prevent women from achieving their leadership potential. Just as importantly, the responsibilities of having children must be redefined as belonging equally to both parents. Many countries offer only maternity leave, not paternity leave (or else a far shorter paternity leave). In the future, parental leave should be equal for both women and men, so that families can choose when and how to have and raise their children. The option of husbands staying at home to look after the children, while their wives continue their careers, should be considered just as reasonable and natural as the reverse arrangement. Governments should also provide generous childcare support, so that single parents can continue to work and pursue their professional ambitions.
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