Do Women Make Good Leaders?

14-05-17 Assel Aitbayeva 0 comment

HR – Predictive strategist, business partner and trusted colleague?

I had been thinking of writing something on diversity progress (or otherwise) for some time but was prompted to act when I was asked in a workshop recently whether women make good leaders. Admittedly it was an all male group from a fairly traditional culture but I was still somewhat surprised.

The particular session was covering diversity and we had looked generally at a “best talent” strategy and ensuring our resourcing efforts were as broad as possible in searching out, hiring  and progressing that talent in whatever shape, size, colour, age, gender etc. we found it.

I prefer this best talent approach to the more usual protection of minorities line based on progress through legislation as, even in the developed world, there seems to be continuing dissatisfaction with equality progress. In the emerging world, where I spend much of my time, additional legislation may be helpful but in the interim a “best talent” approach can make progress without it.

Customers, Age and the Disabled:

It makes sense for the people that businesses employ to be representative of their intended customer base and/or the community in which they are choosing to compete.  After all, whatever we have on offer to customers – from widgits to ice cream – we are not particularly bothered about colour, gender, age etc. when someone is buying. In this workshop we had discussed age and the efforts in some industries to match appropriate life experience levels to customers eg. Financial services and Food retail.

We had also looked at opportunities for talent within the disabled community – technology now opening up numerous channels to use these talents online and covered a range of examples of this being progressed – despite in some countries, legislation aimed at protecting this group proving to limit opportunity.


However, it was the gender issue which proved the most contentious. I had taken them through an initiative in which we had targeted mothers who wished to return to the workplace at some point after having children. This had entailed introducing every conceivable flex in employment terms and timings as well as improving maternity leave options and introducing paternity leave – all market leading at the time. As numbers of recruits from this initiative grew, turnover was well below our own and industry average and with the employment brand enhanced I thought I had made a case for at least examiming the possibilities of introducing this in attendees’ own business – Adobe have recently announced something similar in an attempt to balance the male domination of Silicon Valley. However a (very) lively debate ensued where estimates of potential turnover for those recruited via this initiative ( I had not yet quoted them the figure) ranged from 20 to 40% – it was actually 4% in the first two years!! The learning being that much of the issue appears to be one of perceptions rather than facts and without concerted effort, these perceptions are likely to continue to interpret any given set of facts to suite a pre-determined view.

So, back to the “good leaders” question and potential responses?

I have quoted in a previous post the billions of dollars claimed to be lost last year by listed companies who are less well represented by females at Board level. Part of my response to the group was to highlight this data and in addition:

-A CNBC study last year (in response to some activist investors asking the same question) examined the rise in value of companies listed on the Russell 3000.

4% of CEO’s on this index are female. Of the top 25 companies by value increase three were run by women. Of the bottom 25, none were run by women. The average rise for male run companies was 15% and for female run companies 19%.

-A recent CIPD article claimed that the best change agents are women over 55 – combining support for age and gender diversity.

– Another article claimed that female run companies are less likely to be involved in unscrupulous or fraudulent activity – perhaps a message for the car, financial and energy sectors from what we have seen in recent years!

And of course we could always look at the examples of Sheryl Sandberg, Indra Nooyi, Ginny Rometty, Mary Barra and Safra Catz to name just a few.

So, the answer seems pretty clear – woman can and do make good business leaders.

“But so can men” I hear you say. True ( I have been fortunate to work for both), but we men have historically been given more opportunity to prove it and perhaps time to ensure ability, not gender is given that opportunity in the future.

In summary:

Businesses will succeed and attain competitive advantage if they are able to attract and keep “best talent” and some of that diverse talent may well be available to them now but need a variety of flexible approaches and initiatives to assist them in making the contribution they are capable of and that the business needs.

Women, older people, disabled people and those of every size and colour can make a contribution to the bottom line – in leadership and various other roles – and HR needs to be working with the business to ensure we are finding, using and progressing them in support of achieving competitive advantage intentions.

Joel Farnworth
MAML Fellow CIPD Lead Designer and Deliverer of BSM’s HRDev programme

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