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The Power of Female Leadership

Women are consistently proving their ability to excel in leadership roles. So why is there still inadequate representation?

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By Sharmadean Reid

24 March 2021

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This article is one in a series covering the UN Commission on the Status of Women - a gathering of powerful female voices working together in the global fight for women’s equality.


ore than ever before, women are making their voices heard about the representation they deserve. Discussions about the absence of women in powerful positions (from CEOs to board members and managing directors) have opened our eyes to the disparity. But despite this, women’s representation at this level isn’t improving as fast as many expected.

There is still a recognisable, undeniable gap and it is closing at a glacial pace. Research by McKinsey shows us just how slow it is. In the last few years, the number of women in C-suite roles (i.e. those at executive level) has dropped to 21 per cent. And the “broken rung” is still a barrier. For every 100 men climbing the ladder and moving into management positions, only 85 women were promoted. If you look at a racial breakdown, it’s even more dire; for every 100 men, only 58 black women were promoted.

“The messaging needs to be clear. Women don’t want a participation trophy; they want to make a difference”

The higher up you go in a company, the fewer women there are compared to lower levels. Women make up 47% of entry level roles compared to 21% at C-suite. But for men, the inverse is true. There are more of them at higher levels than there are at entry level. 79% C-suite compared to 53% at entry level.

Women are still significantly under-represented despite evidence to show that women’s participation and leadership contributes to more inclusive solutions and better outcomes. Progress is too slow. Having women in decision-making roles is vital to achieving equality and sustainable development goals. So what is stopping women from succeeding in leadership?

No matter the industry, all women are held back by the same outdated beliefs. 36% of women feel they can’t push to advance in their careers. And 42% worry about the impact having children will have on their career. There’s this expectation that women have to play the role of mother, and that it will impede their chances of succeeding professionally. This isn’t just paranoia; 48% of new mothers said they were overlooked because they had children.

On the panel at a discussion on this very topic, Rehema Namutebi, director general of the national budget at the ministry of finance and economic planning of the Republic of Rwanda, spoke of her experiences. When applying for her current position, she was point-blank asked if she planned on having children and how many she might want.

This shows women are still hindered from entering these roles over fears of their “commitment” and availability. And this stance won’t just fade away. It needs to be met with national policies to protect women and offer them the opportunities they have a right to. Rehema spoke of how Rwanda is effecting change, appreciating gender equality with an objective to strengthen the mechanisms for promoting women’s meaningful participation in leadership and decision-making positions.

At the same time, we can’t allow representation in the workplace to be a trophy; something done for the accolade, not to actually make a difference. Beena Pallical, general secretary of Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolan, India, talked about women elected into position as tokens for representation. These women are in positions with no real power. They aren’t decision-makers. The power isn’t in their hands. Women need to be contributing to the agenda of achieving economic justice, not just sat at the table voiceless.

The point of diversity in upper management spaces is to give a voice to under-represented communities. The messaging needs to be clear that this is what we are trying to achieve. Women don’t want a participation trophy; they want to make a difference.

In terms of women responding to COVID, we have seen amazing results. New Zealand’s Prime Minister handled the pandemic excellently, keeping infection and death rates comparatively low. Women have proven over and over again that they’re perfectly capable of handling tough decisions.

We need to destroy the stereotype that women can’t be good leaders. The evidence is there to show us how diversifying leadership roles benefits wider society. But there is still that perception - that deep-rooted patriarchy - that says different.

The Short Stack

Women are more than capable of succeeding in these roles. By tackling perceptions, offering childcare, and bringing in national policies, we will create an environment that is significantly easier for women to achieve success as natural-born leaders.

By Sharmadean Reid

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