A Path for Gender Parity in the C-Suite

Men and women are equally qualified to lead, but what's going on when nearly all new corporate leaders are men? A recent informal study suggests a path to parity.

Talking about differences between men and women leaders is a tricky business. Nobody wants to lean on generalizations about how different genders handle C-suite jobs; “women are like this” and “men are like that” commentaries is the stuff of bad 80s stand-up comedy routines. But look at the leadership gap when it comes to gender, and it’s hard not to wonder if there are distinctions.

Consider: According to research by PricewaterhouseCoopers, just 3.5 percent of the incoming CEOs of top global companies in 2016 were women. (That’s up from 2.8 in 2015, so, green shoots?) And once women reach those positions, there’s the compensation gap to deal with, which has existed in the association world just as it does in the corporate world.

Don’t be wishy-washy in what you want to know. Male leaders love to be asked to give advice.

So when I heard that Matthew McCreight had recently given a talk at a women’s leadership conference titled “What Women Can Learn From Effective Male Leaders,” it was easy to find the title a bit condescending—but also relevant.

Based on a recent report on the event at Entrepreneur magazine, a more relevant and less provocative title for the talk might have been, “Common Blind Spots Among Male Leaders.” McCreight interviewed 31 women leaders, and those conversations surfaced issues about gender roles that often don’t get raised. For instance, he recalls the case of one woman senior staffer: “The CEO had staff meetings every Monday at 8:00 am, so she had to bring her nanny to her house every Sunday night so that she could get out of the house and get to that meeting. So finally after a number of years, she was asked how it was going, and she said, ‘This thing is killing me!’ The CEO offhandedly said, ‘Why don’t we move it to 10?'”

Who’s at fault there—the male CEO for failing to consider the complex family lives of his VPs, or the female VP for not being more up-front about the issue? In perfect world, both sides would give the matter due consideration. But in the world we’re actually in, McCreight argues, women need to take the lead in highlighting the issues that a relevant to their careers, and play more offense in general. Much of the advice he received from the women he interviewed are of the take-ownership-of-yourself variety: “Don’t be afraid to make decisions”; “Don’t wait to be asked”; “Don’t be wishy-washy in what you want to know. Male leaders love to be asked to give advice.”

Good advice—to an extent. After all, asserting power is meaningful only so far as you’re in an environment where asserting that power is respected. A report last year on women in the workplace from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. pointed out that women who negotiate for promotion and raises are 30 percent more likely than men to be told that they’re “bossy,” “intimidating,” or “too aggressive.” In too many work environments, “don’t be wishy-washy” is guidance that can carry negative consequences.

The good news, according to McCreight, is that male leaders seem to be getting it. He says many of the women who responded to his survey said, “the best male leaders don’t fit the stereotype, and instead show more empathy, a quality that is more often associated with female leaders.” But an environment where men project more empathy, respect, and—let’s say it—fair compensation and treatment of women doesn’t have to be a dream where people wait for the appropriately aware male CEO shows up. It can be built into the organization’s system.

For instance, McCreight advocates that organizations emphasize hiring for senior positions by using diverse teams that reduce the biases of the CEO or other leader. “We have a team of people to hire them, so we don’t just have a myopic view of whether I like somebody,” he says. “We look for people who are different, and bring them in and mentor them and help them along.”

Beyond that, women who aspire to the top job, or jobs near it, will still need to assert power in ways that are clear and up-front. As I wrote last fall, it’s an approach that has had some success. While there may not be a stereotypically “male” leader, it’s still a world of predominantly male leaders—and understanding the dynamic that creates is a first step for both genders to have more opportunities to be better at their jobs.

What does your organization do to promote gender parity in leadership roles? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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