Jennifer Reynolds is the chief executive officer of Women Corporate Directors (WCD). Her 25-year career in the financial services industry includes senior roles in investment banking, venture capital and global risk management and corporate director roles in the banking, insurance and asset management sectors.
Think of a genius.
Chances are you just pictured a man, not a woman. If you did, you are among the majority who associate brilliance more easily with men than women. In fact, studies show femininity is inversely associated with brilliance. This brilliance bias starts at a young age. When asked to draw a scientist, the majority of young children will draw a man, and by the age of fourteen children are drawing four times as many male scientists as female scientists.
With the introduction of blind auditions in the 1970s, the proportion of women in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra went from zero to close to 50 per cent. From arts to sciences, the brilliance bias is pervasive, and the corporate world is no different. Faith in the “blindness” of the meritocracy continues to be a stubborn barrier for women’s advancement into leadership roles in the economy.
Despite the fact women have represented more than 50 per cent of university graduates for more than 30 years, women still represent less than 5 per cent of CEOs. Similarly, women hold a mere 5 per cent of board chair roles. Why should we focus on those two roles in particular? The CEO and chair of the board play the most influential roles in our economy. The strategy and goals for the business, the agenda of the board, and the culture of the organization, are largely defined by the individuals who hold those two pivotal roles in an organization. Women hold 5 per cent of the most influential roles in our economy, yet we represent close to half of the work force and more than half of the population.
Too often, I hear the comment that “it takes time” to build the pipeline for leadership. There just hasn’t been enough women in the pipeline for long enough to move the dial on the “face” of economic leadership. I graduated from university about 30 years ago in a class of more than 50 per cent women, as did all graduates of that generation. The pipeline of educated, innovative, ambitious, and capable female leaders is present in abundance. Our brilliance is just masked by our gender.
Christine LaGarde, president of the European Central Bank, recently commented on the need for leaders who are prepared to adapt to a world of greater complexity and uncertainty. People who can break down knowledge silos, bring together pioneering minds from different sectors and find integrated solutions to complex problems. She also noted the need for leaders who can build bridges and find common ground where it exists. These are people who create trust, listen to others and can connect with those unlike themselves. Characteristics which female leaders tend to possess in abundance, and which can be beneficial in multiple situations – especially in times of crisis.
There is a narrative that women are better at leading in a crisis, yet it seems to assume that their leadership qualities emerge only episodically and then disappear again. The past two years have once again shone a spotlight on women’s strengths as leaders. A recent multiyear study of leaders and employees from approximately 5,000 companies in close to 100 countries looked at how leaders do the hard things that come with top jobs while still remaining good human beings. In essence, it explored leaders “doing hard things in a human way.” Wisdom and compassion emerged as the most potent and effective leadership qualities in difficult times. When the data was parsed by gender, 55 per cent of the women in the study were ranked by their followers as being wise and compassionate compared to only 27 per cent of the men. By a 2:1 margin, followers said that women leaders versus male leaders are able to do hard things in a human way.
In a world craving leadership during a time of crisis, in an economic period which calls for steady stewardship, all in the face of great environmental and societal challenges, it is time to acknowledge and make room for new forms of brilliance. It is long overdue that we challenge women’s role in the 5 per cent club of leadership in our economy. It is time that our children draw female scientists and CEOs when asked what genius looks like.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.
Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today or follow us at @Globe_Careers.