Women Leaders At Work: Time To Celebrate?

Posted: November 20, 2012

The percentage of women in leadership positions continues to be abysmal. The change is far too slow to warrant celebrations.

By Unmana Datta

Intel India, Lockheed Martin, IBM, Yahoo: all appointed women heads of business this year.




Cue the self-congratulatory press releases and interviews, with the implication that the company is progressive or that the corporate world is post-feminist. But think of this:

– There was a media furore over the fact that Marissa Mayer was pregnant when she came to Yahoo. A CEO who’s pregnant – who had ever heard of that?

– IBM is a 100-year-old company, and Ginni Rometty is its first woman CEO.

– Globally, women are in one-fifth of senior management positions.

– 10% of businesses have female CEOs.

 4% of Fortune 1000 CEOs are women – and that’s still a record high.

– 36% of U.S. companies have all-male boards of directors.

– In India, a number from last year says 5.3% of directors are women.

Those numbers are way too low, and the visibility of a few women leaders does not change that fact.

How many of your employers had a woman at the helm? For me the answer is none (and I’ve worked in four companies) except right now, since I started my own business.

Why do we need more women leaders in business?

Businesses with gender diversity in leadership are more successful.

One research found that 1.3% of start-ups have women founders and 6.5% have women CEOs. Yet the research also found that companies with female leaders are more likely to be successful.

And it’s not just start-ups that are more successful with more diversity in senior management. Big public companies with women on their boards outperformed companies with all-male boards by 26% in six years.

Working women all along the career ladder find it easier.

When young women employees see that all the senior leaders in the company are men, that sends a message. When her boss and her boss’s boss and her colleague’s boss are all men, it takes a strong woman to feel she can be boss too. So having fewer women leaders leads to… having fewer women leaders.

Women are pushed out of the workforce because the existing structure is so masculine.

I’ve heard many stories of sexism in the workplace (and have a few of my own to tell). All of us know women who’ve struggled to juggle work and motherhood. At what point does a professional woman decide that this is just not worth it? That being a stay-at-home mom, or a freelancer, or a business-owner, would be much easier and less stressful?

I have tremendous admiration for entrepreneurs, but there’s a difference between starting a business because it’s your passion and starting one because working in a masculine environment is too stressful.

Mostly-male workplaces tend to foster narrow perspectives.

After the financial crisis, there was a lot of discussion over how the masculine, competitive culture of Wall Street had contributed to the crisis. Recent research indicated how the participation of women led to more generous decisions. I don’t believe women are intrinsically better than men (which in itself is a sexist point of view) but a workplace with more diversity tends to be a workplace where different perspectives are encouraged.

How many workplaces in India offer day-care facilities? How many employers offer flexible hours? Most employers in India seem to assume everyone (including the women!) has a stay-at-home wife who takes care of the children and household issues.

But one token woman isn’t enough to bring fresh perspective.

Women leaders of business are often heard emphasizing that their gender has nothing to do with anything: “I certainly want to continue to be a role model,” said the current CEO of Lockheed Martin earlier this year. “But I don’t think it’s necessarily about being a female in our business. I think it’s about . . . my track record, my results.

Soon after becoming CEO of Yahoo, Mayer emphasized that she is not a feminist and called “feminism” a negative word. This in itself isn’t surprising: as one of the few women at the top, she’s unlikely to want to jeopardize her position by speaking out too strongly in favour of equality. In fact, someone who speaks out is unlikely to be invited into the “boys’ club” in the first place.

Perhaps with more women in power, women leaders might become less defensive and more proactive about introducing women-friendly work policies.

As this blog post put it:

Just getting women into high ranks doesn’t mean that they will necessarily come in ready to change policies like maternity leave to make it easier for their employees or recognize the struggles women go through as they try to climb the ladder. Another woman CEO is historic, but it’s far from the change we need for women’s workplace equality.

Get your act together, India Inc. We have waited long enough.

*Photo: Kumud Srinivasan, President Intel India. 
Photo source: Intel.

Unmana is interested in gender, literature and relationships, and writes about everything she's interested

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Comments

6 Comments


  1. “there’s a difference between starting a business because it’s your passion and starting one because working in a masculine environment is too stressful.” Well-said.

    Having just gotten of a call where the male manager referred to the female team members as girls…with a very senior female client…and neither she nor I corrected him…why didn’t we speak up?

  2. Marissa Mayer getting off her maternity leave early did no good for working women. How are we supposed to cope with the biological, physical and emotional needs of pregnancy when women on top make it look like it can be done without. Talking about feminism is not bad when you Are on top of the ladder… And you are right about getting off work on your own rather than being forced out.

  3. “At what point does a professional woman decide that this is just not worth it? That being a stay-at-home mom, or a freelancer, or a business-owner, would be much easier and less stressful?”
    Am standing at that threshold right now, and it’s a really tough decision to make. One side of you tells you to fight it out at the top, the other tells you to take the easy way out :/

  4. Starry: Thanks. And it’s okay, you can’t fight all the time. Sometimes you stay quiet and then have a good laugh with your friends later.

    Meera: I’m not in favor of policing women’s choices though. Mayer did what she wanted to, which is fine. The problem is that pregnancy and leadership are seen as incompatible, that companies don’t have enough support for mothers of young children.

    Arunima: Best of luck — it’s a tough spot to be in! Also consider: not all jobs/companies are stressful, so a less drastic solution might also work for you, at least in the short while.

    • Why only young children? I face this attitude…”oh your kids are older, and independent, it must be easier”. Well, yes it is. But though they’re physically independent, the attention and time they need for their studies, co- and extra-curricular acitviies makes up for it. They are still emotionally and mentally dependent. They still need their parents to be available. I don’t get why organizations focus their support for their female employees only around pregnancy and maternity leave. Lots of women scale back work when their kids are having learning or behavioural extra needs, or reach important grades like 10th and 12th. Then what?

  5. A very thoughtful post!

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