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INSEAD Women Leaders Programme

Closing the gender leadership gap

Jennifer Petriglieri

Programme Director of Women Leaders Programme
Professor Jennifer Petriglieri discusses a new initiative designed to help women in senior management enhance their leadership skills.

It is hard to ignore mounting evidence that leadership teams with a better gender balance improve business outcomes. To take just one example, a McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that advancing gender equality could add US$12 trillion to global growth.[1]

Other studies have shown that having more women in senior roles can boost board performance, profitability and team creativity.[2] Still others focus on the fact that women make most purchasing decisions.[3] For consumer-based businesses, it follows that correcting the gender imbalance could help leaders to better understand their customers.

But despite this avalanche of research demonstrating the benefits of gender parity, the proportion of women at senior executive levels remains stubbornly low[4] – 17 per cent in FTSE 100 businesses.[5] Why is this? And how can business build a more robust pipeline of women leaders?

Systemic and cultural challenges

“Women face unique and varied challenges as they ascend to leadership positions,” says Jennifer Petriglieri, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. “First, there is the issue of bias. While the most explicit bias has been weeded out of organisations, more subtle bias remains rife—even in those firms with the best intentions to support their top female talent. This bias is rooted in our unconscious associations that pair leadership with men and homemaking with women. Such deep-seated associations fuel a consistent pattern of men being more likely to gain promotion, reward and recognition than women who have equivalent skill, experience and performance.”

Another issue women face is structural. The low number of women in executive roles leads to a paucity of role models, mentors, and sponsors for women who aspire to leadership positions. Another important and often overlooked factor is that women lack the close peer networks that many men enjoy. These are vital for support, encouragement and information, all of which help executives move up the leadership ladder.  

Less recognised, is that organisations can have a host of policies and practices in place that support women on the surface, but in reality contribute to derailing their careers. A good example of this is what can happen when a woman returns from maternity leave, explains Petriglieri. “Often, they are offered a well-meaning side step into a support role, or offered non-client facing, or low risk projects. While this may help with work-life balance, women tend to get stuck in these roles and find it hard to work back onto the ladders that lead to the top.”

Even when women do attain key leadership positions, they can find themselves under a much stronger spotlight than men. Every aspect of their behaviour is scrutinised and they can be heavily penalised for acting in ways that demonstrate competent leadership, yet run counter to the traditional stereotype of being an empathetic, nurturing and ‘feminine’ woman.

What organisations can do

Tackling these issues requires the wholehearted commitment of senior leadership to invest in systemic organisational-level interventions. These vital interventions take time, yet organisations can still take steps to support their talented women as the results of these interventions take hold. 

To support them in this endeavour, INSEAD has launched a women-only leadership development programme for senior executives. This aims to increase the number of women in leadership and help them get the most out of such roles. Central to the approach is the idea that a dedicated forum can help women gain the skills they need to tackle the unique cultural and systemic challenges they face.

The four-day programme draws heavily on personalised coaching to help women build skills around networking, negotiation, leading change and managing career transitions. At the same time, it aims to raise awareness of how those subtle forms of second-generation gender bias can get in the way.

“Participants will return to work with three things – first, some clarity around their aspirations as leaders and where they want to go next. Second, they’ll have had the chance to explore some really cutting-edge ideas around leadership development and what it takes to be an effective leader in today’s volatile and complex business environment. And finally, they’ll have started to build a community of peers – a network of likeminded women in senior roles from a wide range of organisations who can support them in their career,” Petriglieri explains.

The idea is to help people step back from their daily lives and reflect on their personal leadership style. As Petriglieri puts it: “This includes how they operate within a group, as well as interpersonal interactions. We will use experiential exercises and bring in the leadership challenges they face in their daily lives. We also offer the opportunity for participants to think about their leadership agenda for the future.”

Change agents

With change, disruption and complexity coming from all directions, organisations that want to perform at the highest levels need people who can create a powerful vision of the future and strategies for achieving it. And such leaders need to include the world’s many capable women.

It is up to organisations to keep building on the momentum we see today to make it happen. The first step often requires developing leadership programmes based around a deeper, systemic understanding of what’s holding women back. It allows women to adjust their mindsets, navigate the specific challenges they face and take the lead on driving high performance. 

To find out more about the Women Leaders Programme and to start the application process, please visit the webpage.

Jennifer Petriglieri is Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, where she teaches the Women Leaders Programme, the Management Acceleration Programme, the High Impact Leadership Programme, the Leadership Transition Programme and the Psychological Issues in Management elective course as part of the MBA.

[1] How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion To Global Growth, McKinsey Global Institute, Sep 2015
[2] Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence from a Global Survey, by M. Noland, T. Moran & B. Kotschwar, Petersen Institute for International Economics. Working Paper 16-3, Feb 2016
[3] The Power of ‘Just One Woman’ by Jennifer Gilhool, Forbes, Aug 26, 2013
[4] Female CEOs outperform, but glass ceiling remains, Global Finance, Feb 12, 2016
[5] Proportion of women on FTSE 100 executive committees remains static, by Clare Allerton, Personnel Today, 20 Jul 2016

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