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How Can We Elevate More Women to Senior Business Leadership Roles?

How Can We Elevate More Women to Senior Business Leadership Roles?

It’s a fact that women are in the minority in senior leadership roles in general and this is true in small, medium and large businesses and in Government, nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Historically the most popular reasons offered for this under-representation are that women are less capable, less interested in organizational life than men or that men conspire to prevent the elevation of women to leadership roles and create what is commonly referred to as the “glass ceiling” effect. But perhaps all 3 of these popular theories are wrong or at least don’t get to the heart of the matter and in this brief article we’ll briefly explore an alternative view. This is that, at least in broad terms, men are seen to be more confident than women in leadership positions and this can and often does mask true competence. 

Although not all male leaders demonstrate high levels of confidence, even the most quiet and unassuming of male leaders are expected to be at least relatively strong or appear to be decisive. This then creates the impression that men are more assured in leadership roles even though this is often down to shear bravado. Perhaps even worse, research suggests that this over-confidence factor means that groups of individuals tend to elect more self-centered, extraverted and even brash and arrogant people to be the leader. 

Although self-centeredness, overconfidence, arrogance and brashness are commonplace, especially in men, much of the research suggests that these factors are inversely related to real leadership ability when followers are asked about what’s important to them. What followers want to see instead is:

  • humility
  • quiet assuredness
  • a strong vision of the future
  • considerable emotional intelligence
  • clear communication in a variety of ways
  • the capacity to seek out and listen to diverse views
  • consultative decision-making, wherever possible
  • an interest in helping others, as much as necessary
  • an ability to build and maintain the team
  • the capacity to inspire followers by being an excellent role model. 

As we read down this list, it’s easy to see why many female leaders are likely to already have these skills as they often practice these outside work and in the family setting more than men. The only exception to this is number 3 on the above list of 10 which tends to suggest a “take-charge” and therefore more male-oriented approach. However, when we dig into what people mean by this, they say that vision is more about painting a positive and optimistic picture of the future, which needs to be done well and compellingly. This can therefore be done well in a quiet and more unassuming way. 

We said earlier that men are seen to be more confident than women in leadership positions and therefore tend to get the senior roles more often. However, as we can now see, the skills that make a leader successful are much more sophisticated and human centered than having a lot of confidence and women may already have quite a sound base of these skills upon which they can build further. This doesn’t in and of itself change the fact that a female’s path to senior leadership positions is paved with many barriers including a very thick glass ceiling but it does suggest two strategies that we could adopt more strongly:

  1. Communicate the above 10 skills that a leader needs more widely (in men and women) and build them into the criteria for leadership role selection processes in a real and meaningful way (which may mean also downgrading factors like confidence to a secondary skill set or eliminating it altogether as a criteria for success).
  2. Make more of average or less than wanted skills and behaviors whenever it is in evidence in existing leadership role incumbents (many of whom might be men at the moment). In other words, call out mediocrity and ineptness in current leaders when it is seen so as to focus people’s attention on the skills and behaviors to which all would-be leaders should aspire. 

The result of the above two actions may not lead to radical or quick changes in the short-term, but with persistence are likely to make very big differences in the long term, a part of which is also likely to be more women being elevated to senior leadership roles.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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