Gender as an Asset and a Liability in Leadership

Following the September 16th GOP debate and the October 13th Democratic debate, political pundits praised the performance of the two female candidates, Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton. An online article published by The Atlantic noted that Carly Fiorina won the GOP debate “largely because she skillfully exploited the thing that is both her biggest liability and, potentially, her biggest asset: She’s a woman”.

It’s hard to envision being a woman as a leadership asset when the Pew Research Center published findings in January 2015 that indicated:

  • Only 20% of all U.S. Senators and 19% of all House of Representatives members are women
  • Only 26 Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs and women represent just under 17% of Fortune 500 board members
  • A significant wage gap still exists between men and women despite the fact that more women now attend college, earn a degree, and pursue graduate studies than men

Despite these downright depressing statistics, there may be reason to hope! While recognizing the undeniable truth that being a woman makes it more difficult to ascend to the highest level of most fields (politics and business alike), organizations are increasingly recognizing the strengths associated with “gender-balanced” leadership teams. According to commentary written by Michael Landel, CEO of Sodexo, management teams composed of a balanced mix of men and women achieve results – such as improved employee engagement and consumer satisfaction – more consistently than unbalanced teams.

Landel notes that Sodexo has taken specific actions to promote female leaders, such as an internal organization charged with implementing a strategy to increase female leadership and targeted efforts to change the corporate culture. Individual development efforts may also help women advance in their organizations and careers. Helping female leaders and high-potential employees build strategic self-awareness may better position them to face the challenges posed by gender bias and traditional leadership thinking. Targeted development and coaching efforts can help individuals:

  • Understand their reputation – how others see them
  • Identify and leverage their strengths both in terms of their current positions and those to which they aspire
  • Recognize and manage their weaknesses to enhance current effectiveness and prepare for advanced roles and responsibilities
  • Take a strategic approach to building and promoting an effective leader brand over time

What techniques have you seen used to advance female leaders and create more gender-balanced teams at the top of organizations? Which methods have been successful and which have fallen flat? Please post your thoughts and lessons learned in the comments section!