Do women rule the world?

THIS Women’s Month we would do well to remember the words of Nelson Mandela who said: "As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be low. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure."

More than half of itself — therein lies the challenge.

There is a growing body of evidence showing that women are equally and in some instances more effective leaders than men.

Research by the Institute for Inclusive Security, a think-tank focused on women’s contributions to peace-building, has shown women are more open to "collaboration across ideological lines and social sectors".

This inclination towards compromise is especially useful in highly fragmented countries where female leaders are associated with higher rates of political and economic success.

Women are adept at building coalitions to push for peace and so the higher the percentage of women involved in a country’s post-conflict negotiations, the less likely it is that the country will relapse into conflict.

According to the Institute for Inclusive Security, when women are involved in negotiating peace deals, these are 35% more likely to remain in effect for at least 15 years.

More startling perhaps — in view of prevailing attitudes — are the results from new data from the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) and EY, showing that having more female leaders in business can significantly increase profitability.

Stephen R Howe, EY’s US chairman and Americas managing partner, says: "The research demonstrated that while increasing the number of women directors and CEOs is important, growing the percentage of female leaders in the C-suite would likely benefit the bottom line even more."

While it is critical for organisations to increase access to leadership roles for women, it is equally important to develop equitable strategies and programmes to ensure both men and women rise to the top, ultimately increasing the bottom line of the organisation.

For example, policies that enable employees to meet childcare needs but do not place the burden of care explicitly on women, increase the chances that women can build the business acumen and professional contacts necessary to qualify for leadership positions.

As the saying goes, women rule the world, but do they really?

By January 2017, as many as 21 countries could be led by a woman as president, prime minister or an equivalent high political office. According to Politico Magazine’s calculations it would be a record, topping the 19 female heads of state currently in power. In this respect, it is not exaggerating, therefore, to say that 2017 could be the "Year of the Woman" globally.

South Africa ranks among countries with the highest female representation in government. Laudable as this statistic may be, in corporate South Africa only seven of the 293 companies listed on the JSE have women at the helm (2015 Women in Leadership Census).

Despite conducive factors such as a strong legislative and policy enabling environment aligned with international conventions that seek to protect and empower women, discriminatory practices, social norms and persistent stereotypes continue to shape inequitable access to opportunities, resources and power for women and girls.

It is clear that there are still many challenges to be overcome. The business world was designed by men for their prevailing thinking and decision-making styles. Most working women have had to conform to this mould in order to be heard and taken seriously.

As women have made greater impact on companies, it has become clear that they are no longer "optional" extras. Recent studies among multinational corporations show that with just one woman on a board, a company’s share price will rise an average of 26%. Gender collaborative decision-making makes more money for companies.

Men and women are different, but are the assumptions based on prevailing societal gender roles — which differ from culture to culture — or on irrefutable neurobiological differences that can now be identified by science?

Neuroscience shows that pragmatic thinking, spatial awareness and problem-solving style are the characteristics of the structure and usage patterns of the typical male brain. This is because testosterone causes a decrease in the activities of the right hemisphere of the brain.

Conversely, the female brain receives abundant information from both hemispheres simultaneously and can bring about multitasking, collaborative decision-making, empathy, and a complex decision-making style incorporating people and processes more effectively. Women have the natural characteristics that have been missing in leadership.

Female leaders have been obliged and have chosen to think and act like men, often appearing harsh, rigid and over-assertive. Women who choose to fit the gender stereotype to act "girly" and "likeable" often lose impact and credibility.

Mary Ovenstone, executive and leadership coach at CoachMatching, shows that there is a third way for women to show up as leaders. In order to optimise the gifts of the typical female brain and at the same time fit into the male dominated and designed work world, women should be coached to develop the following leadership and communications strategies:

• Strategic and complex decision-making, utilising the female whole-brained analytical/intuitive style;

• Forthright and disciplined communication;

• Leverage their innate understanding of others;

• Develop their strength and resilience by learning to handle the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) environment;

• Positively process their internal narrative;

• Manage stress in the environment; and

• Feel confident, display it, and dare to make a difference.

The benefits brought by women to leadership positions far outweigh the changes business needs to make.

Given the mess the world is in now, is the male ethos and leadership style, with its innate competitiveness, still appropriate? Or would it be better for both genders to learn to understand one another better, to be allowed to contribute their strengths and to value their differences rather than expecting the other to change.

Astengo has worked in senior management, leadership coaching and as an HR consultant for more than 20 years.



With over 20 years of International HR consulting experience, Susi Astengo, MD of CoachMatching, is well placed to discuss human capital strategies with a deep understanding from both a business and an HR perspective. 

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