How can women climb the leadership ladder?

Collaboration, empathy and flexibility – all crucial for effective leadership – are traditionally perceived as female traits. Yet a new cross-sector study by Caliper finds that female leaders also display the traditional male characteristics of persuasiveness, assertiveness and willingness to take risks.

Women can help each other up the ladder
Women can help each other up the ladder

My own view is that leadership is a fluid, nuanced process; you need to be adept at switching your style and be culturally adaptive as needed. Perhaps because women need to fight harder against ingrained bias and the status quo, we need to be more tenacious and determined to work our way up the leadership pipeline. Yet we are inclusive by nature; we try to bring people along with us. As such, women are setting a new standard of modern leadership.

Since I was appointed to a global CEO role at Maxus, I have been asked more and more about leadership in a gender context. It’s an often-quoted stat, but at Davos this year only 17% of the participants were women. The gender question just keeps coming up – and so it remains relevant.

Gender equality in the workplace makes striking business sense: companies with mixed gender boards perform better, according to the Catalyst Bottom Line Report. Meanwhile, companies with a male-only board were seen to underperform. Time and again, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index tracks a strong correlation between the size of a country’s gender gap and its national competitiveness.

Yet globally, the gender outlook remains bleak: women earn 77% of the amount paid to men, and the UK ranks a shocking 26th overall for equality – its lowest score since 2008. In terms of leadership, only 30% of company-director-level roles in the UK are filled by women, dropping to 16.9% on the boards of Fortune 500 companies.

An important way to challenge these norms is for the small but significant number of women in top senior roles to help other women up the ladder. The dearth of women’s networks is a perpetual problem. However, in the UK there are now a number of women-only networking groups, such as 30% Club and WACL, which provide career advice and mentoring, and advocate for the increased participation of women in business.

Women have fewer, and weaker, connections to senior colleagues than men do, due to legacy issues such as unbalanced recruitment at senior level, old boys’ networks, deeply ingrained stereotypes and inflexible working policies that make life logistically challenging for working mothers.

It’s critical that women leaders have real visibility as role models. We need to “walk the talk” by being on stage, sharing our stories and encouraging others to step out in front. We need to help one another.

There is a persistent underlying sense that women should (and do, by default) collaborate, seek consensus and stay quieter than their male counterparts. Women tend to stick together in male-dominated settings. And who can blame us? Women face a penalty for assertiveness: academic research from the US finds that women ask for $7,000 less when negotiating for themselves than when negotiating on someone else’s behalf – signifying a lack of confidence and self-belief.

Media and advertising are ahead of the curve: 25% of senior management roles in the UK are held by women, according to IPA Agency Census. But given that women make up half of the overall workforce and start out in advertising with a 50/50 split, we have a long way to go.

That’s not to say things aren’t improving – they definitely are. The number of women in other executive roles has shot up in just one year from 29.5% to 37.1%. The media and advertising industry is better at getting women on boards than the broader business sector, with 23% in the UK top 100 companies and no all-male boards; although women tend largely to hold non-executive director roles.

At Maxus, we are proud to have strong female representation at senior level (women account for 40% of our local leaders) and to be bucking a trend for poor gender diversity on boards in the Asia-Pacific region, currently the best area for women in management. Our female leadership quota is increasing, with most of the growth in developing markets – but we know we have more to do.

Gender parity is an issue that forward-thinking companies are trying to address. Initiatives such as unconditional bias training are hugely encouraging and there is clearly momentum for change. A critical angle now is to ensure that we work constructively and inclusively across the business sector – with genuine buy-in at C-suite level essential. Closing the gender gap will benefit all


Author: Lindsay Pattison is WW CEO Maxus, Vice Chair for the World Economic Forum’s Future of Media Global Agenda Council. 

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