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Thought Thursdays

 Women and the Bottom Line: Myths, Mysteries and Milestones

2012-08-30 00:00
By Edith Sievers
By Edith Sievers, a registered chartered accountant and internationally acclaimed executive coach. She is the first South African to be awarded the coveted PCC credential by the International Coaching Federation (ICF).  She dedicates her time to assisting companies to value their human capital.

In recent years, well-respected organisations such as Catalyst and McKinsey & Company have done groundbreaking research on the relationship between financial performance and the representation of women on corporate boards. In these significant reports, they concluded unequivocally that there is indeed an empirical link between gender diversity in corporate leadership and financial performance and therefore, that Women Matter.

Findings of Catalyst’s Bottom Line Report  showed that companies with sustained high representation of women board directors (three or more WBD in at least four of five years) significantly outperform those with sustained low representation (zero WBD in at least four of five years). Key performance measures such as return on sales (ROS) increased by 84%, return on invested capital (ROIC) increased by 64%, and return on investment (ROI) increased by 46%.

Annet Aris, professor of Strategy at INSEAD, puts it succinctly: “With more women on boards, you get better decisions and a more motivated workforce.”

Despite this compelling evidence in favour of women’s representation on corporate boards, we are met by a different and more perplexing reality. The global aggregate percentage  of board seats held by women has shown a paltry increase from 9,2% to 9,8% in a study of 4 200 companies between 2009 and 2011.  Only a very low 1 in 50 companies had a female chair in 2011.

Statistics on entry-level show us that women and men start out with the same amount of ambition.  Here the gender representation is 50/50.  However, as we move up the organisation, the leadership pipeline atrophies by as much as a staggering 80%.  How do we begin to demystify this phenomenon?  To do so, we will enter the domain of unconscious bias. Namely, attitudinal barriers that women in business encounter which their male counterparts do not.

To demonstrate the existence of the first attitudinal barriers, I ask you to turn back the hands of time to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.  During this titanian struggle, the media gave a very public lesson in the workings of what is termed the ‘double bind’.  Anthropologist Gregory Bateson first coined the term in 1956 while trying to understand the communication of schizophrenic families.  It refers to a psychological impasse created when contradictory demands are made on an individual, so that no matter which directive is followed, the response will be construed as incorrect.  

In Hillary’s case, her style was experienced as too assertive (read aggressive) for her to be likable. This caused her ratings to drop.  In response, she dutifully changed her style to become more ‘likable’.  Next, her authenticity was questioned.  “Is this really Hillary?” Now she was being viewed as a fake.  It is hoped that reflective observers of the campaign would have noticed that double binds were applied to Mrs Clinton, but not to the other candidates.

How does the double bind play out in business?  Women will tell you that they must adjust their style depending on whether they are working with men, women or a mix of both.  Women confront a different reality; it is a balancing act that men simply don’t have to be concerned with.  Men are expected to be aggressive, competitive and direct. Moreover, when they exhibit traits considered to be at the opposite end of the gender continuum such as making time for the family, showing feelings, demonstrating caring, sharing credit or taking a back seat, they are often praised and rewarded.  In short, they do not experience the double bind to the damning extent that women do.  

It comes as no surprise, then, that the double bind is called ‘crazy-making’ because, in extreme cases, women leaders are perceived as ‘never just right’.  If women business leaders act in a manner consistent with gender stereotypes, they are considered too soft. If they go against gender stereotypes, they are considered too tough.

Till about five years ago, it was anticipated that it was merely a matter of time before the leadership pipeline would fill up.  Research now indicates that this is not the case.  The concept of the glass ceiling, which refers to the fact that women purportedly are blocked at senior levels, has truly been shattered, but not in the way that we may have expected.  Women are not only blocked at the senior level as was thought, but the reduction in gender parity occurs steadily at each level of the organisation. The metaphor of the glass ceiling, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox  suggests, is being replaced with that of ‘gender asbestos’, something in the walls rather than the ceiling.  Gender asbestos suggests that there is something in the culture that has a systemic preference for male styles, norms and leadership behaviours.

For years we have been under the illusion that the leadership pipeline is somehow filling up.  The facts reveal that it is not. What is needed is a new way of looking at things. Sustainable companies question whether they do indeed operate as meritocracies and examine whether their notion of competence is gender-based.  How can it be said that they are promoting the best in the world, when in North America and Europe 60% of academic graduates are women, in Japan 50%, in the United Arab Emirates 70%?  The math does not line up!

Moreover, we have now arrived in the 21st century.  Women are not only the majority of the educated, but are also the majority of the customers. Women purchase 80% of all consumer goods. Consumer goods include financial services, electronic goods, cars and housing. Two-thirds of all car purchase decisions in Japan are made by women; they make the first third, and they make the second third as the swing vote. Knowing this, it is perplexing to note that the number of women at Nissan comprises only 1,9%.

Where to from here? It is clear that smart companies will change.  Some of them already have by realising that this is not a women’s issue, but a strategic business issue. In so doing, they will gain competitive advantage out of the benefit that women offer, not only as talent, but also as market. How will they do this? The bottom line? Organisations must become ‘gender bilingual’4 – but that, dear reader, is the topic of another article.

Source: Knowledge Resources:  Human Capital Review

McKinsey & Company. (2007) Women Matter: Gender Diversity, a Corporate Performance Driver.
Catalyst. (2004 – 2008) The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards
GovernanceMetricsInternational. (2011) 2011 Women on Boards Report [online] Available from <> [8 March 2011]
Wittenberg-Cox, A. (2010) How Women Mean Business: A Step by Step Guide to Profiting from Gender Balanced Business
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