Bias is a major barrier for gender parity in leadership positions

22 August 2017

Bias against women remains a key factor in low levels of female representation in leadership positions. According to new research, organisations responses to developing female leaders was relatively weak, even while many are theoretically supportive of more women at the top.

Acknowledgement of the importance of diversity at the executive level has grown in recent years, with studies highlighting the benefits to businesses and society alike. The current standing for women at the top of business remains relatively poor, both in terms of their role in the executive as well as their role at board level, found to be 20.3% and 14.2% in the UK and US respectively. The importance of improvement hasn’t been lost on the business community, with the UK MCA starting research into the phenomenon.

There has been a great deal of dialogue within the consulting industry on this topic already. Big Four firm PwC recently announced that while the firm was bidding to increase the number of women breaking the glass ceiling, only 18% of their Partners are presently female. A Grant Thornton survey meanwhile estimated only a quarter of all senior leadership positions in businesses went to women, as the recruitment and promotion process remains heavily weighted in the favour of male hires.

What is the most important reason for companies to focus on developing women leaders

Korn Ferry, a global recruitment focused consultancy firm, sought to better understand how executives from US companies stand in relation their company’s ability to develop women leaders and the appreciation they have to the contribution of female leaders. This most recent study built on research performed by the firm last year, which revealed that just 5% of CEO positions and 12% of CFO positions at the top 1,000 companies in the US were in the hands of women.

Overall, respondents to the new survey, which was performed in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation as part of its 100x25 campaign, were found to be positive about the business case for women in business for developing female leaders. 51% of those polled argued greater gender diversity makes companies perform better, while 47% contended that it would allow companies to attract the best available talent regardless of gender.

How would you rate your company's ability to develop leadership

Respondents in general were concerned about their organisation’s ability to develop leaders however. 23% said their company’s ability was well below average, while a quarter said their organisation could stand improvement – meaning 48% of those questioned thought their firm was underperforming to some degree in promoting the development of female talent. Over a third said that their organisation is above average, at 34%, while 18% said their organisation is excellent.

“Organisations that aim to attract and retain the diversity that will make them more competitive should increasingly focus on their leadership development process," according to Jane Stevenson, Global Leader for CEO Succession at Korn Ferry. “Today’s global marketplace requires a varied mix of skills, experiences, and backgrounds. Ensuring a highly visible process that is viewed as fair and accessible to all top talent is one of the best retention tools, and will build loyalty and sustained productivity.”

Can you identify people who are being developed as potential CEOs in your organisation

Knowledge of those employees who are being groomed for leadership in organisation was relatively broadly spread meanwhile. 25% of respondents said that they did not know who among their organisation was likely to climb the corporate ladder, while around 20% said that they could guess along informal factors. 33% claimed that it was somewhat apparent while 22% say that it is ‘crystal clear’, suggesting only a slim majority believe their organisation has a clear, well-thought plan for ascending talent through the ranks, and rectifying gender representation in the process.

Representation low

Respondents also noted that the number of women in high-profile positions remained low – which may create a situation in which there are not enough women to act as role models or mentors able to support women in their ascent to the top. 26% of respondents said that there are hardly any leaders that are women, 47% say that there are a few leaders that are women, while around 28% maintain that women are well represented at the top.

When you think about the highest profile leaders, how many are women

In terms of further developing women leaders of organisations, 28% noted that boosting female leadership at the company was a priority, however 24% claimed the opposite was true. 33% meanwhile claimed that there are specific initiatives to promote diversity in leadership development, while 15% of respondents said that they have heard that that there was a vague direction to push for such change.

As you understand it, is developing more women leaders a priority for your organisation

Finally, researchers asked respondents to identify the key reason why they believe it is harder for a woman to make it to the top of business. The biggest share of respondents (43%) highlighted bias against women as CEOs, followed by a dearth of opportunity (33%) of CEOs. Other reasons cited by respondents include personal/family responsibilities interfere with work responsibilities (17%) and a the belief that it is less of a priority for women (7%).

If you believe it's harder for women to become CEOs, what would your top reason be

While the research shows that a thin majority of firms have plans to increase the representation of women in management then, ideological prejudice is a key obstacle preventing such progress. While increasing board room diversity is time and again proven to be good business practice therefore, the figures reveal more must be done to combat the illogical aspects of recruitment which continue to see some women devalued due to their gender.

Summarising Korn Ferry’s findings, Jane Stevenson commented, "Companies with more diverse leadership that includes women are more successful across several key measures. Employees inside organisations understand this intuitively, based on their personal experience, but now research is broadly bearing this out."


Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

17 April 2019

Soft skills matter in the workplace just as much as technical expertise, writes Samantha Caine, Managing Director of Business Linked Teams.

For too long technical expertise has been seen as the marker of a strong candidate for development into a sales or leadership position. Sales and leadership candidates are tasked with demonstrating a diverse and wide-ranging set of technical skills, yet their aptitude in these technical skills or ‘hard skills’ cannot signify great leadership potential. This is why a healthy balance of soft skills and technical ability is required. 

So what exactly is the difference between technical skills and soft skills? In engineering, it’s crucial to demonstrate knowledge of physics as well as a strong grasp on mathematical equations. Yet, in any industry, it’s important for leaders to be able to interact with other people effectively with soft skills like communication, empathy and adaptability. 

Business Linked Team’s 2018 study into internal leadership development revealed that 69% of large organisations are prioritising the identification and development of future leaders from within the workforce. As more and more organisations begin to invest in sales or leadership development within their existing workforces, more focus needs to be placed on ensuring the right soft skills are in place. 

With those soft skills in place throughout the workforce, the business will benefit from a wider pool of potential leaders developing under their noses, and it should be the same where sales candidates are concerned. 

It’s not just about easier access to ideal candidates for these positions without the rigmarole of recruiting from outside of the organisation. The leadership development study also found that 89% of HR decision makers say succession planning has become a top priority. Those currently serving in leadership positions can’t lead forever and the same goes for those generating sales for the business.

Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

From people leaving for new opportunities or retirement, to people simply stepping aside to focus on other areas of the business, successful leaders and salespeople require experienced and capable successors that will be ready and able to confidently step into their shoes and pick up the mantle without the business experiencing any lapse in performance.

Soft skills make stronger candidates

When it comes to the soft skills required, a strong leader must be able to manage through clear communication and effective time management, coaching and goal setting. They must be able to demonstrate empathy and empower their teams to be successful, productive and fully engaged. And beyond simply giving direction, they must also be able to take direction from those above them and cascade the business strategy down through their teams. 

A strong sales candidate must possess the ability to communicate value to the customer, negotiate well and protect margin or the ability to increase the scope of a particular sales opportunity. 

With the relevant soft skills in place, the business will benefit from increased productivity, greater agility against changing market conditions and greater transparency. In turn, this will provide visibility on issues and inefficiencies while removing opportunity for miscommunication. All of this can transform the culture of a department, improving employee satisfaction and reducing staff turnover. 

Ultimately, developing leadership or sales candidates will require the business to strike the right balance between technical skills and soft skills, and this requires an effective and sustained learning journey.

A balanced learning journey

Facilitating and supporting the development of leadership and sales is best achieved by establishing training groups. By cultivating training groups, businesses are creating talent pools that will inspire and support each other on the learning journey. However, personal goals and learning objectives must be defined for each individual based on their own existing skillsets and the skills that each individual needs to develop. 

With the emergence of e-learning, businesses recognise the value of online-based learning activities, yet many make the mistake of opting for one-size-fits-all solutions which are solely focused on self-study. A development solution will only deliver true return on investment if it combines e-learning activities with group learning activities that provide opportunity for shared experiences and support.

A blended learning solution that combines self-study and face-to-face group learning activities will aid strong development of the talent pool through shared experiences. Through these shared experiences, those undergoing the training will organically develop a support network that supports the development of the group as much as it supports the development of each individual. 

The blended learning approach is supported by one of the seven principles of human learning that socially supported interactions aid the individual development of expertise, metacognitive skills, and formation of the learner’s sense of self. The strongest opportunities for development can be unlocked by blending workshops with online activities such as virtual sessions, peer coaching, self-study, online games and business simulations. But it’s crucial to provide a blend of one-to-one and group sessions too.

Beyond delivering a better learning outcome for the employee, the blended learning approach allows organisations to adapt their training quickly and easily to shifting business demands in an ever-changing landscape.