Women and leadership: why you can’t afford to ignore their value

In one of the more painful and embarrassing outbreaks of foot-in-mouth disease we’ve seen in recent months, Saatchi and Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts recently declared that everything was hunky dory, A-okay, couldn’t be better, not a problem in the field of women in leadership. In a headline-grabbing interview, Business Insider put it to Roberts that a massive gender debate still rages at the heart of his industry, the advertising world.

“Not in my view,” he said, noting: “Edward De Bono once told me there is no point in being brilliant at the wrong thing – the debate is all over.” Delving further into his bizarre stance, Roberts argued: “If you think about those Darwinian urges of wealth, power and fame, they are not terribly effective in today’s world for a millennial because they want connectivity and collaboration. They feel like they can get that without managing and leading.” Roberts added that the aspiration of millennial women “is not a vertical ambition – it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy … I’m just not worried about it.”

So – that’s it then: there’s nothing more to be said on the subject of women in leadership. It’s a closed book. Finis. Everything is rosy – sorted. Well, not quite

Following an online fulmination at the short-sightedness of Roberts’ comments – under which “circular ambition to be happy” can essentially be interpreted as “delighted to spend my career treading water for fun” – he was forced to shuffle off from Saatchi for a bit of gardening leave, with Parisian parent firm Publicis Groupe announcing: “Diversity and inclusion are business imperatives on which [we] will not negotiate … it is leadership’s job to nurture the career aspirations and goals of all our talent. Promoting gender equality starts at the top, and the Groupe will not tolerate anyone speaking for our organisation who does not value the importance of inclusion.”

Breathtakingly, the top of the press release revealed that Roberts had doubled as head coach for the firm. You couldn’t make it up.

Careers and constructs
Let’s be clear here: not everyone wants to lead. Just as there are plenty of men who have enthusiastically chosen to be stay-at-home dads, there are women who are happier either with homemaking roles, or with small-scale, freelance professions based in home offices, or even with company jobs where they are content to support senior staff, rather than join their ranks. That’s their preference, and there shouldn’t be any sort of stigma attached to it.

But unfortunately, Saatchigate marks the latest phase of a persistent theme in the debate over women in leadership – namely, an urge to question the desire of women who do want to lead. It’s a spirit-sapping chorus of the gender debate that has recurred since long before the term ‘millennial’ was invented. And alarmingly, sometimes it has even been women standing against the aspirations and capabilities of their own sex. Just witness this 2006 article from popular newspaper columnist Mary Kenny, who argues that such factors as the glass ceiling and social conditioning, so often cited as roadblocks to female ambitions, are actually “constructs” – and that careerism is a distraction from a woman’s true vocation: to be a safely domesticated, maternal figure.

It’s not a million miles away from what Roberts said, is it? As with his remarks, the problems that so many women encounter on a daily basis are dismissed as imaginary. The crucial difference, of course, is time: Kenny’s column was published 10 years ago – but Roberts gave his self-defeating interview on women in leadership only last month.

By helpful contrast, this 2012 opinion piece from Forbes approaches exactly the same issue from the opposite (ie, a far more sympathetic and progressive) angle. Writing straight from the viewpoint of the millennial generation, Julie Zeilinger – founder of The FBomb, a feminist blog for young people – says that social conditioning is precisely the reason why women are often deterred from leading. Media messaging, she argues, has encouraged females to consider themselves endlessly improvable, almost to an obsessive degree, while males don’t have that particular burden. As a result, males find it easier to see themselves in leadership roles, warts and all, while women wrestle with the thought of hitting a bar that they themselves have been forced to set dauntingly high.

Olympic hurdles
Organisations aren’t making things any easier – as we can see by turning our attention to what is now the ultra-topical field of the Olympic Games. On 3 August, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) published its latest International Sports Report Card on Women in Leadership Roles. Grading a host of heavyweight sports bodies around the world in the same way a teacher would a class full of students, TIDES zeroed in on entities that have had a significant role in laying the groundwork for the Rio Olympics. It found them not just wanting – but actively desperate.

The national sports federations responsible for fielding athletes to the Games received a damning F-grade average. The International Federations (IFs) to which those national groups are affiliated also received an F. And at the top of the tree, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself, which has made so many pronouncements about the need to improve its proportion of women in leadership roles, received only a D+: not what you’d call a ringing endorsement.

TIDES director Dr Richard Lapchick noted that, out of the 35 IFs, only nine had women in leadership roles at a greater level than 22%. He added: “While the IOC claims to support the promotion of women and girls at all levels of sport, women are still seriously under-represented in the most influential positions in international sports … It is unacceptable that only 5.7% of International Federation presidents, 12.2% of vice presidents, and 13.1% of executive committee members are women … the IOC must set a higher standard for the International Federations to follow.”

A $12 trillion opportunity
Which brings us to the crux of the matter: why is this so important? Well, as noted in the TIDES report by Val Ackerman – boss of major, US sports body the Big East Conference – the “marginalisation” of women in leadership throughout her industry is at odds with the sector’s current needs. “Across sports,” she says, “there is no shortage of areas where more women’s voices – and votes – would enrich dialogue, improve decision making and ensure that sports remain in step with the times.”

And what applies to sports organisations holds true for the wider business world. Female empowerment – extending opportunities to make women in leadership a far more common sight – is a mission-critical goal on which firms must deliver if they are to equip themselves with the value they will need to survive and thrive for the next 10 years… and beyond.

Don’t just take my word for it: that’s the conclusion of no less an authority than the McKinsey Global Institute. In work that made its debut last year, and has continued in 2016, research from McKinsey stressed that advancing women’s equality and minimising gender gaps could add a massive $12 trillion to the world’s gross domestic product by 2025: 11% more than would be added under a “business-as-usual” scenario. Much of that financial opportunity comes from advancing the cause of gender equality in the world of work.

If anything, that $12 trillion figure actually discloses the sheer size of the gender gap that Kevin Roberts said we don’t have to worry about anymore. And so, this blog comes full-circle – back to the advertising industry where it started. As glowing good fortune would have it, just when I was completing the piece you’re reading, I came across this recent article from industry journal Campaign, flagging up 40 – count them – 40 female leaders in advertising who have become ‘agents of change’, fighting their way to the top to disrupt tired old norms and practices. It’s well worth going through the line-up just to take in the sheer variety of people and experience that it represents.

All of which would appear to cancel out Roberts’ remarks on the female desire to lead. This is just a hunch – but when I looked through the Campaign line-up, I got a very strong feeling that they all wanted to be there. There’s no reason to think that millennial women don’t share the same ambitions. And for the sake of value, those ambitions must be nurtured.

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