Yesterday we saw Theresa May start her new job as Britain’s prime minister with headlines around the world ruminating the significance of her gender and comparing her to other women leaders. But why is her gender so important?
Is it because this is only the second female prime minister the UK has ever had and that so very many countries have not broken that barrier yet? Or is it that we still have not normalised in public consciousness that women are leaders?
The rise of Theresa May is just the beginning of what could be a momentous year for female politicians to become global power brokers.
On this year’s FORBES list of the world’s 100 most powerful women, the top three most powerful are politicians: Germany’s Angela Merkel, US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. And now Theresa May has become leader of the world’s fifth largest economy.
If you include in our sphere Christine Lagarde and Nicola Sturgeon, we have seen a significant rise in women leaders in politics.
For years discussions about the role of women in the world were seen as a women-only philanthropic issue. We know gender bias in society is integrated in the business, societal and government structures, and that leadership development programmes focusing on women have had a clear message and a desired outcome: women, you need to be more like men. This needs to change and the mindset of those involved needs to change.
I recently read a front cover that said “Since the human race began, women have delivered for society. It is time now for the world to deliver for women”. Well it’s great to see that women are not waiting for anyone to deliver, but are grabbing the opportunities despite the patronising quotas and making the change real.
We are beginning to see a few refreshing realities:
Women in leadership is being normalised rather than being considered an abnormal event, (although not quickly enough)
The policies and mindsets of the people in power are shifting towards providing greater and swifter equal access to opportunities (and still the people in power tend to be men)
There are more role models that are very important to aspiring woman leaders.
We should note that this should not be a movement of the powerless for the powerless, who need an alliance with the powerful to survive. This is a movement of talented individuals who understand that they have what it takes to be successful in this world. Yet there is still so much work to be done.
While attitudes may be changing among younger men, recent studies show that when it comes to having children, millennial couples (born between 1980 and the early 2000s) who assumed their careers would be equal, tend to slip into traditional roles.
For women to advance, and it is largely women who assume the role as primary carer in family life, requires a new mindset of business, society, government that reshapes everything from workplace design to leadership styles. When you consider that based on the current climate, gender inequality in the workplace will outlive our own and perhaps even our children’s lives, yes it does paints a bleak picture, but there are grounds for optimism.
I read an interesting quote from Aung San Suu Kyo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, that read: “In societies where men are truly confident of their own worth, women are not merely tolerated but valued”.
To that I would add, valued not because they are women, but because they are talented individuals who add significant value to the world in which we live. In my experience, which is based on my many educational dealings with countless successful women (my own high flying partner included!) we need a new mindset. We need to harness the momentum of those refreshing new realities described above. We need to build upon the role models we see emerging in politics and in business and this is vitally important to the world in which we live. Why?
The economics of women’s equality speaks for itself. In many countries, women are 40%-49% of the workforce and in an increasing number of households are the sole or primary breadwinners. And with 70%-80% of consumer-buying decisions falling into the hands of women and women playing an equal role in labour markets, with equal pay, an additional $28 trillion (yes, that’s trillion with a ‘t’) could be added to the economy. We need to go back to the future and finish the revolution off.
So, to succeed, we need a new mindset for the New World; a mindset which embraces women in leadership as a critical step on the journey to success. We need to shift the discussion away from a lingering women’s problem or an issue of equality and instead focus on this as a massive business and society opportunity.
Instead of trying to find a problem in every solution or a discussion in every problem we need
to present solutions: road maps to businesses, road maps to politics, road maps to leadership that are better balanced, with persuasive arguments that help us all understand and benefit from shifting global gender balances.
The shift is away from wondering what is wrong with women who don’t make it to the top, and towards analysing what is right with companies, public sectors and leaders that have normalised women leadership teams – and are tapping into the resulting competitive edge.
Then, we need to capitalise on this mindset by identifying and positively recognising the women in the workforce who are innovators, the role models and leaders.
We need to finish the revolution - for all our sakes. Innovate or stagnate – it’s our choice. I do hope by then my beloved Labour Party will have had the wake up call too.