The number of women in middle management has grown significantly over the past decades; however, the number of women in CEO or senior leadership positions remains low. The opportunities for women as senior leaders within innovation is even lower.
Men and women are fundamentally different and therefore exhibit varying leadership styles. People tend to prefer the communal, kindness, warmth and gentleness of female leaders. Women are also ‘effective’ leaders and the literature tells us that they are more transformational than their male counterparts, exceeding them on individualised consideration, which encompasses supportive and encouraging treatment of employees. Female leaders are also more transactional, thus manifesting leadership styles that relate positively to effectiveness. So why are women still struggling to navigate from middle management to senior leadership? Furthermore, why is this struggle particularly evident within the realms of innovation? What can we do about it?
Many attribute this deficit to leadership style. The agentic style of male leaders, manifesting traits such as confidence, aggressiveness, risk taking and self direction is the more stereotyped perception of an effective leader. Within the innovative enterprise, such masculine traits of leadership, namely confidence and risk taking, tend to lend themselves more towards effective navigation of innovative projects and teams. On the other hand, a more feminine style of leadership could threaten innovation and is thus a likely reason for the deficit of female leaders in the innovative enterprise.
The literature relays a plethora of factors stunting the progression of women to senior leadership positions, from a lack of confidence and under-prediction of their own performance to wider experience of disapproval even if they do choose to adopt more masculine behaviours, such as asserting clear-cut authority over others. More generally, other obstacles include gender-based bias and stereotyping as well as practical concerns such as work-life balance and conflicts.
We interviewed several high-profile senior leaders, both men and women, working in start-up, research and development, technology and academia and sought to determine why leadership roles in the innovative enterprise tend to be occupied by men and to establish the main barriers to leadership for their female counterparts. The overwhelming consensus was that the perception of being too humble, possibly as a result of a lack of confidence, is likely to account for the lack of female leaders in the innovative enterprise as relayed by the vast majority of these senior executives. Unsurprisingly, the ‘old boy’ network and gender biases including discrimination, a negative image of women in senior roles and gendered language are still very much prevalent. After this, other barriers such as work-life conflicts, lack of professional support and education were highlighted.
Upon reflection and discussion with the senior leaders, we identified three key areas where barriers to female leadership in the innovative environment can be overcome:
First, women need to be aware of their perceived traits and qualities, such as humbleness and gendered language, and self train or seek support to address the same. One such way would be to have more confidence in their ability to lead effectively and familiarise themselves with and practice the language of leadership.
Unconscious bias, evidenced through behaviours such as gender stereotyping, gender discrimination and the existence of the old boy networks, is a major barrier towards the actualisation of female leadership in innovative enterprises. A systemic approach is needed to address this and all members of an organisation from the senior leadership down need to be individually and periodically educated on unconscious bias. Companies also need to consider their genuine commitment and integrity towards gender equality and instigate initiatives whereby teams, including leadership teams, are balanced for gender.
Third, organisations must strive to enable capable female leaders to reach their potential as senior executives. Enablement means overcoming identified barriers such as work-life conflicts by introducing initiatives such as flexible working hours, sufficient support post maternity leave and robust professional support programmes for female employees throughout their careers to ensure that they are appropriately mentored and guided towards success.
There is an inherent need for systemic education and eradication of bias as well as basic and professional support to promote the progression of women to senior positions in business, particularly within the innovative enterprise. Human resources are key to actualisation of this and need to play an active role by partnering with businesses to ensure women with such potential are given the tools and support needed to facilitate their just progression to senior leadership status.
Clair Daly and Marie Fitzgibbon are from UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, Dublin