Op-ed: It’s time to reconsider how we encourage women’s leadership


At the third annual Women, Wine and Wisdom evening, hosted by the West Ottawa Board of Trade, a panel discussed the challenging but relevant topic of women leaders in the workplace.

One conclusion was particularly relevant: Women leaders face an almost immeasurable range of challenges that most men are barely even aware of.

As one of the few men in the audience, I left the event asking: Why aren’t more of us men taking part in this conversation, and what can I do to better support my female colleagues in advancing as leaders in a world where women hold only 24 per cent of senior management roles?

While the first question is likely beyond the scope of this article, a useful guide to answering the second question was recently published in the influential Journal of Management.

In a study that covered 117,639 separate organizations, the authors offer a powerful suggestion: It’s time to reconsider how we measure and encourage women’s leadership by focusing less on potentially misleading metrics (such as the number of women leaders in an organization) and more on the structures and biases that create “gendered” organizational cultures.

If this sounds to you like esoteric, academic theorizing, don’t be fooled. The lessons have far-reaching, practical implications for organizations struggling to find solutions for closing the gender gap. More importantly, the article offers a novel way of thinking about the value of women as leaders.

Beyond the business case

The authors position their research in relation to the so-called “business case” for women leaders, an academic theory that attempts to prove that firms with more women leaders enjoy greater success.

The authors point out that there are in fact very few unambiguous examples in which the existence of women leaders can be obviously linked to a firm’s financial performance.

Of course, such a finding does not mean we should abandon the broad project of advancing the role of women in the workplace. Rather, what is required is to understand why a “business case” for women leaders is such a complex and loaded concept, and why looking at it from a strictly financial perspective is so limited.

Using a “bottom-line” approach to measure the value of women leaders misses a key point: “Value” in an organization is not always measured by income statements and balance sheets. For instance, women leaders might positively affect less quantifiable markers of organizational success, such as the ability to generate ideas or engage effectively with key stakeholders.

Part of recognizing that the status quo is unacceptable is admitting that firm value is created via many different variables.

Using a financially driven business case for women leaders is limited in two distinct but interrelated ways.

First, it assumes a clear dichotomy between men and women in relation to world view and leadership style, suggesting that men and women consistently act and think differently, and that such differences form the defining driver in terms of a firm’s performance.

Second, implying that such a separation exists also indirectly assumes that this dichotomy between men and women has a direct effect on outcomes, without ever identifying how this relationship works or what the “missing variable” is that would trigger this system of cause and effect.

In other words, if we buy the idea that gender plays a dominant role in determining outcome, shouldn’t we also question what exactly it is about gender that fuels this?

It is this last point that leads to the authors’ most useful suggestion: Rather than focusing solely on the idea that progress in this space is best measured in dichotomous terms, managers and organizations need to recognize that gender is more of a social system than an easily adjustable metric. This system – what the authors call the “gendered subtext” – affects an organization in a wide variety of ways, from hiring practices and workplace policies to underlying organizational norms and behaviours.

Beneath the surface

Consider the “iceberg” concept of culture, which states that most of what defines a culture exists below the surface, including unstated and unconscious behaviours. Similarly, what forms a “gendered subtext” won’t necessarily manifest itself through policies or practices that explicitly limit women – rather, such a subtext will exist below the surface, invisible to most participants.

Managers – particularly men – should attempt to better understand the areas in which gender biases are affecting real-world decision-making and workplace culture.

Rather than focusing on promoting women leaders for the simple goal of achieving gender parity, managers must engage in self-examination of both themselves and their organizations

Rather than focusing on promoting women leaders for the simple goal of achieving gender parity, managers must engage in self-examination of both themselves and their organizations, identifying subtle ways that women are being held back. It’s up to managers to recognize unconscious biases and to challenge them in a way that invites an organization to flip such assumptions and practices upside down.

Further, it is equally important for managers to reflect on how much existing models of workplace behaviour are based on antiquated notions of leadership effectiveness. In practice, this means recognizing that effective leaders come in all shapes and sizes – and, of course, genders.

Returning to my original question about why more men aren’t engaging in this conversation, I am optimistic that the situation results more from a lack of tools than from a lack of empathy. Perhaps if more male managers could understand why gendered environments exist, or how they can work to counter the negative impact of such environments, they would be better equipped to help remove gendered barriers to workplace advancement.

Undoubtedly, there is a strong case for women in leadership roles, and it must not be left to women alone to advance this case.

Mischa Kaplan is the CEO of Cardinal Research Group as well as a part-time professor in the School of Business at Algonquin College.

The article

Hoobler, J.M., Masterson, C.R., Nkomo, S.M., and Michel, E.J. (2018), The Business Case for Women Leaders: Meta-Analysis, Research Critique, and Path Forward, Journal of Management, Vol 44, Issue 6, pp. 2473 – 2499.