Women in Leadership Then and Now

“Since 2008, more women have assumed leadership of huge and influential companies (GM, IBM, Lockheed Martin) and global institutions (the IMF, the World Bank, the European Central Bank). More women have also been elected to high office around the world.  Since 1964, 64 countries have had a female head of state or government, according to Women’s Power Index and as of May 2020, 19 countries were being led by a woman,”1 according to Sally Helgesen, author of seven books on leadership, and a keynote speaker around the world on women’s changing roles.

Even with these vastly improving numbers, women in leadership still lag behind the majority. This may be attributed to the basic challenges women continue to face in the workplace, even as progress is made:

1. Unconscious bias stems from gender stereotypes reflected in the subconscious attitudes both men and women have about female capabilities. Huge strides have been made, but the deeply ingrained image of women “barefoot and in the kitchen” still is widespread even in civilized nations.

2. Unequal pay is more complex than just dollars and cents. It extends into the opportunities women are presented with, often fewer than their male counterparts.

3. Different expectations makes it more difficult for women, because there is the need to balance actual ability, respect from peers and being likable. In other words, aggressive men are the norm, but aggressive women may be considered dislikable.

4. Limited career advancement opportunities take the form of fewer promotions for women in a corporate environment. A 2021 Yale study found women 14% less likely to be promoted at their companies annually as well as being consistently judged as possessing lower leadership potential than their male counterparts.2

5. Lack of sponsorship and mentorship ties in with limited career opportunities. Women are less often approached by mentors or sponsors who can be sources of knowledge and even lead to the “inside track.” What women need to do is to actively seek out mentors and coaches rather than hope to be “found.”

6. Sexual and gender-based harassment is something that women continue to contend with. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that women supervisors had to deal with even more sexual harassment than others in their fields in the United States, Japan and Sweden.3

Given the inherent challenges that women face, the progress that has been made by women in leadership in recent decades is impressive. According to recent statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the proportion of women in higher education fields as of 2017 are as follows: 78% Education, 76% Health & Welfare, 64% Social Sciences, 63% Humanities, 54% Business and Law, 50% Science & Math, 24% Engineering and 19% IT & Communications. The World Bank shows that as of 2017, women accounted for 49% of the global workforce.4

Women inevitably will continue to rise in roles of responsibility and power. The reason is simple: women are major consumers and therefore drive the global economy. A report looking at female emerging markets by Ernst & Young pointed out that by 2028, 75% of the disposable income worldwide will be controlled by women.5 With women as the primary consumers for everyday products and services (fashion, home, health, education) female preferences will dictate the marketplace, and women executive and entrepreneurs will have the sensitivity and know-how to lead. In fact, start-ups founded by women since 2018 to date, have yielded higher benefits with an average 10% higher income than those founded by men.6

What is called “she power” by entrepreneurs in the Digital Age, refers to leadership traits attributed more often to women. It embodies the ability to combine, adapt and learn. In other words, women leaders tend to be able to adapt quickly to changing environments and to face hardships with optimism and perseverance. According to a survey published by the Boston Consulting Group in 2018, women are more dependent on data and information analysis as well as being more willing to spend time on research.7

This trend coincides with the decreasing “confidence gap,” where women questioned their own competence. Since female millennials are now a force to be reckoned with in the global workplace, confidence has increased as well as the recognition of women’s capacity for strategic insight and vision. According to Ms. Helgesen, “As growing confidence based on demonstrated competence has increased women’s determination to reach their full potential, so has greater solidarity among them. This is one of the most dramatic shifts that has taken place over the past 30 years. Increasing solidarity among women, a growing role for male allies, and vastly improved organizational engagement have combined to create an infrastructure of support for women almost entirely missing in previous decades.”8

As women continue to expand into leadership roles worldwide, initiatives that were once considered tokens to showcase a company’s commitment to women’s advancement have now become integral parts of many companies’ talent acquisition strategy. Global organizations look for leaders who can combine decision-making with relationship-nurturing, collaborative thinking and direct communications—qualities found often in women. And, as women come into positions of power, they are actively giving a hand to the new generations coming up through the ranks.

Some interesting trivia about women of wealth from Forbes: China had 45 self-made women billionaires in 2022, down from 57 in 2021. The U.S. had 24 self-made women billionaires in 2022. India’s richest self-made billionaire is Falguni Nayar whose fashion retailer Nykaa went public in November of 2022. Singer and entrepreneur Rihanna is Barbados’ first billionaire.9

One major change in workplace attitudes may be attributed to the pandemic. For some time, as workers were forced to stay home, the distance between those who worked outside of the home and those who worked within the home, closed. Women who worked from home used to be in the majority, but the pandemic shifted the numbers drastically. Companies that were able to be flexible and support working from home (like Nikken did globally) managed to survive and even thrive. Traditionally, women have always dominated in direct selling and network marketing—and the pandemic supported what women have been doing all along: being productive while working from home.

Let’s celebrate together on International Women’s Day on March 8 and honor all the women in our lives!

1,8 https://www.strategy-business.com/article/The-evolution-of-womens-leadership. (2020 article)

2,3 https://www.strategypeopleculture.com/blog/challenges-female-leaders-face-in-the-workplace/

4,5,6 https://www.ceibs.edu/new-papers-columns/women-leaders-then-now

9 https://www.forbes.com/sites/gigizamora/2022/04/05/the-10-richest-self-made-women-in-the-world/?sh=6b0cdd126c25