Putting women in leadership positions can be an important driver of growth for businesses and economies everywhere, yet they are an untapped resource. Joanna Barsh and the McKinsey Centered Leadership Project are working to help boost development in this area.
As early as the Egyptian queens, history has seen its share of female rulers. In recent decades, women in developed economies have made substantial gains in the workplace and finding them in executive positions is hardly novel today.
Finding them in the boardroom, however, is much more unusual and this is an issue that has piqued the interest of Joanna Barsh, a director of McKinsey & Company in New York. Through the McKinsey Centered Leadership Project, she is taking steps to accelerate the development of women leaders. Having started in the United States, Barsh recently expanded her research to Asia.
Mars vs. Venus
Is there a difference between women leaders and men who lead? Based on research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, the chief executive officer and president respectively of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, women are seen by those around them as better leaders than men.
Research in Europe and the United States suggests that companies with several senior-level women tend to perform better financially. Hiring and retaining women at all levels also enlarges a company’s pool of talent.
So why are women still under-represented, especially at the most senior levels? According to a McKinsey global survey, companies have not yet successfully bridged the gap between men and women in the top levels of management. Although the number of female leaders has increased, leadership continues to be viewed as culturally masculine and the belief that men make better leaders than women is still common today. It is also not a surprise that larger companies are more likely to take more actions to achieve diversity.
This, says Barsh, is one of the key issues. “Companies need to take actions on diversity issues, and welcome women’s competencies to enter a higher level. We’ve been driving several companies in the United States to change their paradigm and the response was quite fruitful. And now we’re trying to bring this movement global,” she states.
In 2004, Barsh decided to create a research survey of remarkable women leaders from around the world, the results of which she ultimately poured into a book. How Remarkable Women Lead pointed out 25 examples of successful women. This set in motion her plan to help unlock the potential in every woman in the business world who wants to lead, and to mold them into mentors for other women.
Still, barriers such as the glass ceiling still prevent women from reaching their full potential. Women are routinely undervalued and assumed to lack competences, while men earn more and are promoted more frequently. But Barsh observes that this does not shut the opportunity door; women can still assume roles that have been filled so far by men.
“There will always be a role for women to lead, and today, many women have stood up to face a fair competition of ability, knowledge and competence. It is the opportunity for women to show their competences that needs to be open wider,” she explained.
The issue of overcoming barriers to women’s leadership has emerged as a hot topic; in turn, a range of innovative ideas for expanding gender inclusiveness and women’s leadership have been proposed by many. Barsh stressed that this is a global movement and the aim is to retain and develop implementation to advance women to higher levels of leadership and economic strength.
Heading to the boardroom
According to the Asia Society, women are a fallow and underdeveloped resource in the Asia Pacific region and an enormous amount of work is needed to bring them to leadership positions. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) also sees women’s leadership as a powerhouse for economic growth. Yet, the situation remains that even in the highest-represented member economy, women occupy only 15% of corporate board seats.
Whether by earning their position independently or rising to power through a family connection, more women have reached the pinnacle of power in Asia in recent years. But there are still anomalies in a man’s world, states Dewi Fortuna Anwar, director for programs and research at the Habibie Center, an independent policy institute in Indonesia. Women need to be more manly, to show that women won’t cry in public and are tough enough to order the military around, she says.
In late May, McKinsey’s Barsh visited Jakarta to gain a better understanding of the progress of women leaders in Indonesia as part of her study and research. An early presentation and analysis of a McKinsey study showed that women at the entry level or basic education level get equal access to success, but then there is a funnel and the number narrows toward the senior management and executive committee levels. At the CEO level, only 5% are women; in the bureaucracy, slightly less than 10% in the first and second years are women. And only five out of 147 state-owned corporations are headed by women.
“During the summit, I witnessed many ambitious enthusiasts and great role models of women leaders in Indonesia,” observes Barsh. “However, the participants were slightly slow to respond, as if there was something holding them back from thinking big.”
Cultural and personal barriers play a big part for Indonesian women. “There are still strong traditional values that describe males as superior to females,” observed Linda Gumelar, state minister for women’s empowerment and child protection, during the GlobeAsia Leader’s Forum last year.
Barsh adds: “The barriers will always be there. Therefore, through this summit we want to encourage the female gender to face these barriers. Without neglecting their duties as a wife, mother or daughter, women can become leaders.
“They need to trust themselves that they can play an important role in their organization’s success. Many women have succeeded and proven that their leadership style can thrive in today’s economy. Again, it is the opportunity that needs to be enhanced, and at the same time, the male gender needs to accept that women can lead.”