- Since 2015 the number of women in senior leadership in business has grown and diversity in leadership is good for business;
- Beyond business, female leaders from across generations are working together to find new solutions to the world's biggest problems;
- The tech sector must attract more women to unlock the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and ensure technology is developed from a balanced perspective.
In an ideal world, it shouldn’t matter whether there’s a woman running the IMF, Microsoft or the Democratic Party. Does an SME owner or tech start-up care that it’s a woman who makes finance more accessible? If a miner, factory worker or fisherman gets a better share of the profits and can send his or her children to school, are they bothered that a woman made it possible?
Bush fires, burst riverbanks, melting icecaps, fatbergs, plastic islands and species extinction: none of these considers the sex of the perpetrators or decision-makers. Yet, encouraging more women into leadership positions remains critical in our era and given the fast-approaching challenges of the future.
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Change is coming slowly
The overall number of women in top business roles is still painfully low – only 5% of CEOs of major corporations in the US are women – but there are reasons for optimism. Since 2015 the number of women in senior leadership has grown, particularly in the C-suite where the representation of women has increased from 17% to 21%. Today, 44% of companies have three or more women in their C-suite, up from 29% of companies in 2015. Corporate America scores much lower than France or Norway, where businesses average more than 40% female representation on a board of directors.
Diversity in leadership is good for business. For example, a Harvard Business School report on the male-dominated venture capital industry found that “the more similar the investment partners, the lower their investments’ performance”. In fact, firms that increased their proportion of female partner hires by 10% saw, on average, a 1.5% spike in overall fund returns each year and had 9.7% more profitable exits.
Evolving job needs are empowering women and levelling the playing field. The new service economy doesn’t rely on physical strength but skills that come easily to women, such as determination, attention to detail and measured thinking. The female brain is naturally wired for long-term strategic vision and community building.
The emergence of female leaders can become a centrifugal force for good in the world. For the first time, we’re seeing examples of female leaders emerging from across the generations to cross-weave their knowledge and drive for change. If we take the environment and climate as an example, someone as experienced and respected as Jane Goodall is standing alongside teenage activists like Greta Thunberg. Importantly, there are now ambitious and capable women running influential organizations who can activate physical change through technology and policy. The recent progress with the circular economy and blockchain is a prime example.
Tech can lead the way
There’s nothing inherently masculine about blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning; computers are androgynous by nature. That said, the tech sector remains heavily dominated by men. According to the World Economic Forum, the greatest challenge preventing the economic gender gap from closing is women’s under-representation in emerging roles. In cloud computing, just 12% of professionals are women; in engineering and Data and AI, the numbers are 15% and 26% respectively. Unless the sector can balance the ledger by making roles attractive to women, then we risk missing out on the full potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Organizations need to ensure there are sufficient rungs on the ladder to help women climb into management positions. We need to be open-minded enough to bring in female leaders from other industries, who don’t have a tech background. We need to work closely with schools and universities to win the argument that tech isn’t just a male career path. Technology also has a role to play – and responsibility – in promoting diversity in the workplace, given its ability to change working relationships, encourage transparency and connect people around the world. In a period of constant flux, organizations that prioritize a diverse and inclusive culture will be better placed to solve the problems of the future.
Research by Deloitte suggests companies with an inclusive culture are six times more likely to be innovative. By staying ahead of changes, they are twice as likely to hit or better financial targets. This means providing female mentors and role models, demonstrating trust (rather than talking about it), creating an environment that encourages collaboration, using technology to break barriers and sourcing innovation openly.
Women can lead our sector forward too. Now that technology is all-pervasive, the traditional sector lines have become blurred. Brands that cling to the old structures will find themselves overtaken and left behind. This is when women’s ability to empathize and seek compromise becomes a powerful asset. If technology is supposed to service the whole of humanity, the big decisions need to be taken from a balanced perspective.
The power of politics
More women are now being elected to legislatures across the world: women hold 25.2% of parliamentary lower-house seats and 21.2% of ministerial positions, compared to 24.1% and 19% respectively last year. While there is a long way to go, improving political empowerment for women typically corresponds with increased numbers of women in senior roles in the labour market.
In my own Queensland, a women-led government is taking big steps forward on behalf of the state economy. They’ve shown a real desire to listen to experts in the wider world of business. We’re seeing women from other fields, such as ex-Olympic athletes, joining the political arena. Yet, for those countries and political parties – and corporations for that matter – which have never appointed a woman to the top position, the suspicion that the system isn’t fair and that the glass ceilings are unbreakable grows with every election.
The survival of the planet requires new thinking and strategies. We are in a pitched battle between the present array of resources and attitudes and the future struggling to be born. Women get it; young people get it. They are creating a whole different mindset.
Ultimately, the problems we face are not technological, but human – the human system is broken. People should always be appointed on merit and the electorate must decide, but more still needs to be done to give all women the best possible chance of rising to the top. If that happens, then I’ll be the first to say that who’s in charge doesn’t matter a jot.