No more excuses – our future female business leaders are waiting in the wings

By busting the myths around women and talent, we can make better progress on gender equality in the workplace, argues John Amaechi

It’s anathema to me that we still act with collective surprise when another set of stats on the state of gender inequity in the workplace are released. Progress is glacial at best and, while that dismissal of the iterative progress towards equity for women will have many criticising me for not recognising even incremental movement as positive, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the 2018 World Economic Forum report that indicated the global gender gap across a range of areas will not close for another 108 years, and that it would take some 202 years (at the current pace) to close the workplace gaps.

It’s been more than 100 years since suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was killed in a collision with the king’s horse as she and others were in the midst of a desperate struggle for women’s suffrage. It seems vulgar that the historical champions of gender equity are now disrespected with progress this unhurried.

This pace of change is not acceptable – not because women are some kind of artificially homogenous group with a singular, special business skill, but because in an era of unprecedented disruption and change, I would have thought any leader in any sector would want the best brains and the broadest possible perspectives available to tackle the increasingly variable and escalating challenges.

One of the many excuses for the lack of progress is the ‘missing women’ phenomenon: the idea that just below the most senior echelons of leadership, women are like unicorns, somewhere between, at best, rare and, more likely, mythical.  

In my work as an organisational psychologist and coach, I know anecdotally that this absence of talent pretext lacked merit but being involved with the WeQual Awards has laid that lie to rest. In its first year we have seen a remarkable cohort of women delivering exceptional results and exemplary leadership just below the C-suite.

My team and I created a set of criteria to allow nominees to describe their leadership without all the gendered assumptions that normally crowd women out. The research-based criteria we used spoke to the essential elements of leadership that deliver results – the mindsets and behaviours of a leader – without any of the machismo, posturing and overblown self-promotion that usually characterise the archetypal leadership candidate. These are criteria of true leadership, not loud men.

These criteria allow nominees to evidence their leadership in ways that speak to their excellent work and that our expert panel of business leaders can understand and further investigate at the interview stage. That next phase, where nominees are scrutinised by leaders with years of experience, adds real-world validity to those who go on to win and crucially gifts the wisdom of hundreds of years of leadership insights to those nominees who aren’t successful this time.

I am a man who would consider himself a flawed feminist at best, but I am a mercenary for success. I will seek out and recruit anyone who might eliminate a blind spot, add missing expertise or grant me some additional early warning of the challenges and opportunities ahead. I don’t claim that our awards will be the solution to slow progress in workplace gender equality, but it will help eliminate another claim that holds us back – that brilliant women are completely absent. My last few months meeting the nominees and hearing of the joyful conversations they’ve had with judges who have validated their leadership convinces me that we can remove another barrier to gender equity as it grows and expands.

Researchers Lord and Maher (1990) say that one of the key criteria of leadership is this: “To be a leader, you have to be perceived as a leader.” WeQual is not a panacea, but nominees and winners alike leave the process knowing they have evidenced their ascendency and been seen for what they are – leaders in waiting.

Let’s not let them wait too long.

John Amaechi OBE is a psychologist, consultant and CEO of APS