#BeBoldForChange: Unleashing women’s leadership potential

By Kassia Gardner

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International Women's Day is a vehicle for change to help forge a better, more gender inclusive world. In 2016, organisations and individuals were invited to support the #PledgeForParity campaign which committed to helping women, and girls, achieve their ambitions, challenge bias, advocate gender-balanced leadership, value women and men's contributions equally and create inclusive cultures. On Wednesday 8 March 2017 International Women's Day are asking you to #BeBoldForChange and to “take groundbreaking action that truly drives the greatest change for women,” such as forging a more inclusive, gender equal world.


On the face of it, things are looking positive for the number of women on boards in the UK.  This year we have seen the number of women on FTSE 100 boards increase to 26%.  This is good for the UK Economy - a detailed McKinsey report has estimated that if the market participation of women and men were equalised, then the annual GDP could be increased by at least 10% in 2025.


It’s not all good news though. The Cranfield University School of Management report led by Prof Susan Vinnicombe, CBE ‘The Female FTSE Board Report 2016, Women on Boards: Taking stock of where we are’ identifies that there is much more to be done to ensure that women progress through the executive pipeline.  The report gives an insight into women’s representation at Executive Committee level in the FTSE 100, showing that women hold only 19.4% of executive committee roles.  So more needs to be done at pipeline level to ensure women will progress to top senior roles and reach a new target of 33% of women on boards by 2020.


Recent research by Prof Elisabeth Kelan, Director of the Global Centre for Gender and Leadership at Cranfield School of Management has focussed on the pipeline and the positive effect male middle managers can have. Her report “Linchpin – men, middle managers and gender inclusive leadership”, showed which practices people in middle management positions can adopt to create greater gender inclusive workplaces. Men make up 70% of managers and leaders in organisations and as such have a major role to play to ensure that gender parity becomes a reality in organisations.


We can see from the statistics of numbers of women on Boards and Executive Committees in the UK and other countries, there is still a lot of work to do. Just arguing for more role models for women is not going to be enough to increase the number of women in leadership roles - we need organisational cultures to change and to be more inclusive for women. If a woman finds herself in a culture at work that really shows little gender awareness, it is unlikely that she is going to develop as a leader in that organisation, and this can also have a negative impact on that organisation’s recruitment and retention.


Prof Kim Turnbull James is a Programme Director of the Cranfield’s Women as Leaders Programme. Kim says, “Organisations need to look at their practices around hiring, promoting and performance reviews. It is not a matter of merely recognising unconscious bias but a dedicated attention to creating specific behavioural changes to organisational practices that will make a radical shift to women’s expectations of advancement.”


There are still many ‘gender blind’ practices in organisations which disadvantage women. Cranfield’s Women as Leaders Programme offers senior women an opportunity to develop an understanding of how they might develop their career and time to reflect on and clarify their approach to leadership, in a world which still offers few executive level role models. This programme gives women the chance to reflect on what she needs for her own development into executive roles. Perhaps most beneficial is that the participants meet senior women from a variety of organisations and compare and contrast their experiences.  Participants hear the latest thinking on leadership and consider how this impacts them in their specific role and context.


At Cranfield School of Management we are working in a number of ways to unleash women’s leadership potential, but programmes like Cranfield’s Women as Leaders needs to sit alongside other opportunities within the workplace that support development and enable women to take their next career steps.

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