Wednesday 1 July 2015

"Women constitute half of the talent of the planet."

A series of interviews with experienced players and experts in human resources and organizational development. Here we ask the questions to Elisabeth Kelan, Professor of Leadership at Cranfield School of Management, and a world renowned expert on gender diversity and women in the workplace. She has just published a new study “Opening the Black Box” (*), that  examines the struggle women have to get into top jobs. 

MCE : 50% of the world’s working population are female. Are we ever going to recognize that fact and realize that we are talking about half the talent of the planet?

Elisabeth Kelan  (EK) : It is surprising that is has taken organizations so long to realise that women constitute half of the talent. Many organisations not only realise that they overlooked half of the talent but also that the talent they have been grooming as future leaders is changing dramatically. With the demographic and generational changes the 'Organization Man' who prioritises work over life is no longer a model that organizations can rely on when it comes to talent. This provides a strong impetus for change. 

MCE : Your new study is titled,“ Opening the Black Box”. (*)– We have to ask the question: “is it really worth the effort; isn’t there a better, more useful, contribution that talented females can make to organizations, without hankering after being the CEO” ?

EK : The study looks at how journeys to the boardroom differ for women and men. The research was conducted by Scarlett Brown, a PhD candidate at King's College London, who is funded by the ESRC and by Sapphire Partners an executive search firm specialising in diverse talent. There is currently a lot of focus on achieving at least 25 percent women in FTSE100 board rooms following the Davies review. The Cranfield Female FTSE report shows that we are on track to hit the 25 percent target. The effect on candidates is that it raised the ambition of many women and they now aim for a board seat. While women aim for a board seat, men are more likely to aim for the chair of the board. There is still a difference in ambition and it is important that women not only get a board seat but also take leadership roles on the board. We also found that women received a lot of advice on their way to the boardroom whereas men benefitted from sponsorship - they had power brokers who put them forward for roles. Women and men network in the same ways but get different things from their network. This shows that a lot of work needs to be done to achieve gender balance on boards and beyond.  

MCE :  Do you think, that women who choose a business career get a rough ride from the media and are all too easily stereotyped – any thoughts on how to avoid that?

EK : Women in the media in general get a rough ride. Women are more likely to appear as vox populi but much less likely to be featured as experts. The media thereby perpetuates gender stereotypes instead of providing an impetus for new societal possibilities. This of course affects women in business careers where the focus is often on their private life and their attire rather than their business contribution. Media organisations are waking up to this and some are changing the messages they put out. 

MCE : Do you have any female business women heroes – and why do you respect them ?

EK : We are really lucky today to have a good selection of senior women in business and beyond who are all very different. Just think of women leaders such as Angela Merkel, Ginni Rometty, Christine Lagarde, Hillary Clinton, Marissa Mayer to name but few. All of them have found ways to lead in their unique ways rather than complying with a template. I admire that.  We also should not forget that there are many men who practice leadership in such ways that allow gender equality to flourish. So rather than looking at women as leaders we also need to foster gender inclusive leadership practices in men as well as women. For instance I am currently engaged in a new research project that explores how middle managers practice inclusive leadership. 

(*) You can download the study at :

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