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Developing Leaders

Issue 14: 2014


he time has come for women to attain equal power to men in the corporate

sector – or so it would appear. Awareness of the dearth of women in senior

management positions has never been greater. Mounting evidence that board

diversity is a source of competitive advantage has caught the attention of the

shrewdest of executives. Innovative initiatives like the 30 percent club have galvanised

chairmen to commit to action. And, consequently, many HR directors are being encouraged

to identify ‘real’ solutions – beyond the standard checkbox, and now have the green light

to invest significant capital.

However, despite unprecedented levels of commitment, an understanding of



equalise the playing field in the upper echelons of the business sector remains elusive.

Each year, new best practices are identified – unconscious bias training, the integration

of diversity metrics, additional support for female talent and, most recently, sponsorship

programmes. While these formal tactics all contribute to moving the needle, none of them

get to the heart of why women feel excluded. They address the symptoms rather than the

cause, potentially transforming a few individuals but not the system as a whole.

Three Sources of Tension

As Director for the Centre for Synchronous Leadership, I have the privilege of working

with many senior women and men across a variety of industry sectors – financial services,

legal, energy, healthcare, etc. Additionally, the Centre runs several community-based

initiatives that provide the chance to engage men and women at various points in their

careers. Over the course of hundreds of conversations, I have noticed that the majority of

career challenges women grapple with can be attributed to three main sources of tension

– all of which concern their relationship to power.

1. Desire for Power

Firstly there is ambition, or the

desire for power

. Jennifer, a board member from a large

company, recently shared her career ambitions with me and soon afterwards became

visibly flustered. Despite having reached major milestones in her career, she still felt

uncomfortable openly expressing a desire for more power. Another client, Dana, continues

to make great strides in her career, clearly enjoys the resulting sense of achievement, and

yet vehemently denies that she has any aspirations of being a leader. Were it not for some

powerful sponsors, others might just believe her. Jennifer and Dana are not alone.

As Anna Fel explains in

Necessary Dreams

, women experience an inherent conflict

between being ambitious and maintaining their feminine identity. Even those who are

in tune with their competency and desire for power may be reluctant to openly declare

this. Instead, ambitious women often adopt a more passive posture to career progression

than their male counterparts, relying on others to speak on their behalf as Dana did. This

makes sense when we consider how femininity is traditionally defined. The Bem Sex Role

Inventory (BSRI) is based on a large-scale study conducted at Stanford in the 1970s to

Lead Like a Woman

Rewriting the Rules of Corporate Success

By Justine Lutterodt