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Women in business: Turning promise into practice

Most business owners understand the benefits of having a diverse leadership team—particularly in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Diversity reduces the risk of group-think and can often help businesses to uncover new growth opportunities, better understand and support their people and their customers, and even improve the bottom line.

Yet, according to the latest Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR), Women in business: Turning promise into practice, while there has been an increase in gender inclusivity across senior management over the past five years, 33% of businesses still have no women in senior leadership positions. For its part, Canada has continued to perform better than the US in this area—but better in this context is still relative. In truth, only 23% of senior roles in North America are held by women, while 31% of North American businesses have no women in senior management at all.

Why are companies struggling to foster true diversity? Often, the report says, it’s because they continue to operate with a traditional approach to leadership, which may not appeal to many women or even the next generation of men.

One issue may be that men and women value the attributes of leadership differently. For instance, while 35% of survey respondents value “communication” as a core leadership attribute, men see communication as telling people about decisions they’ve already made, while women value conversations. And when it comes to teamwork, men tend to value leaders capable of delegating, while women want their leaders to foster collaboration. And, when dealing with complexity, women value adaptive leadership more than men.

Men and women are also driven to assume leadership roles for different reasons. While leaders of both genders want to have an impact by effecting organizational change, empowering others and making a difference in local communities, women also want to know they’re being appropriately rewarded—with 28% of women saying they took a senior leadership position to earn more money compared to 21% of men. This is likely because women have typically had to fight to achieve equality in the business world, and feel that recognition and fair reward is something they will have to actively seek out.

This disparity also extends beyond matters of money—businesses need to be alert to the creation or existence of hidden barriers for female leaders. For instance, some business cultures remain unconsciously biased against women, lack the support structures that would enable female leaders to succeed or celebrate leaders who prioritize business life over family life—an expectation that can disproportionately affect female leaders.

To help overcome these barriers and reap the rewards of gender diversity, the report suggests that business owners should:

  • attract, develop and retain more diverse leadership teams by re-evaluating how leadership is defined and by seeking ways to reward a broader skill set,
  • learn what drives the desire to lead and then offering women the rewards they seek from leadership roles—including better compensation, and
  • create an environment that supports women wanting to lead by addressing any ingrained beliefs that may be holding women back.

Altering your business’s organizational framework and values won’t be easy, but it will undoubtedly make your business stronger and enable you to reap the benefits of a diverse, gender-balanced leadership team.