Representation Matters: Closing the Gender Leadership Gap

Blog | Leadership Development | Rise and Lead Summit
November 10, 2020
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Despite seeing very significant advancements for women in the past few decades, the fact is that progress in women representation in the workplace has been slow.  Women are still very much underrepresented and this is especially true for women of color.  Clearly, a lot still needs to be done to close the gender gap.

The Rise and Lead Summit 2020 brought in industry leaders from the corporate, academic, and business sectors of various backgrounds to discuss the issue on Closing the Gender Gap in The Workplace.  One of the topics that was tackled was “Representation Matters”, which was led by the following panelists:  Jeroen van Vliet – Director Field Sales at Coca-Cola European Partners, Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen – Chairman Executive Board Aon Holdings, and Rhonda A. Ocha – Vice President, Mastercard, Customer Delivery Europe.  Sheila Gemin, Client Executive Partner Banking & Insurance at Atos, acted as the moderator.

The panel discussion revealed fascinating insights into the gender gap issue, the progress that’s been made, and the challenges that many business and corporate organizations are facing right now.

According to Jeroen, equality in opportunities and in representation at the leadership level for women can’t be properly addressed without engaging the men in the conversation. This is what the leadership team in the Coca-Cola company has been doing and the results have been impressive thus far. Currently, the leadership circle within their company is composed of 36% women and is projected to achieve 40% by 2025.

Coca-Cola believes that women should be provided with an opportunity to reach the highest levels of leadership and therefore their company policies and procedures are geared towards that direction.

Jeroen shared that they recently launched a new company-wide parental leave for both men and women – they have increased parental paid leave by up to 5 weeks.  Allowing men to take parental leave will give women the chance to focus on their careers and share the responsibility of parenting, which helps them to do better at their job and get to leadership positions.

Marguerite shared that a company’s leadership must represent the people who buy their products.  This is an important aspect to establishing a culture of diversity. “You will better represent your brand through your customers. If you want to attract diverse customers, you need to have diverse employees and leaders,” she added.

She also highlighted the importance of taking a very close look at the company’s Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) strategy as a whole and not just the individual pieces of it.  The D&I strategy must address aspects such as paternity and maternity leave, selection process and committee (how candidates are selected to join the organization and who are involved in the selection committee), and policies that allow women to be themselves while working, among other things. 

“Don’t take a backseat.  It’s important for women to be present, accounted for and to have their voices heard.  Put your name in your work,” Rhonda said about women representation.  She believes that this is one of the best ways to start closing the leadership gap.  Women need to be seen, heard and recognized without waiting for others to do it for them.  If you’ve done a great job, show and tell people you did it.  Show them what you’ve got and don’t hide or shy away from the spotlight.

Providing an environment where women can feel like they are part of the group or community empowers them to do better and climb the leadership ladder.

As social creatures, we have an inherent need to belong and to feel accepted for who we really are. For women especially, a sense of belonging helps them feel empowered.  And when they’re empowered, they speak up, they contribute, and they lead.  Companies must therefore focus on building a culture of belonging.  When women feel included, they will be able to rise, build up their skills and reach their full potential.

Furthermore, Rhonda advised that women should be encouraged to get involved with external activities outside their comfort zone as a way to build confidence, to develop skills, and to network.

The panel also touched on how to address people who are resisting change.  The general consensus was that “honesty is key.”  Be honest and direct with everyone involved, including those affected by the change. Let them know why the change is needed and what it entails.

Jeroen stated that in order to get men on board, it is necessary to explain why the changes are needed.

“There will be fresh ideas, improved decisions and better results. We must open up and speak about this. It’s important to have this conversation, and of course, anyone who disagrees with such a change may find a better company outside of the organization,” Jeroen added.

Rhonda acknowledged that people have different reactions to change.  There are early changers, fast followers, and resistors.

Early changers are people who can adapt quickly to change. They are the ones that require less effort when it comes to adapting to changes.  Fast followers are those who need something or someone to follow through.  Most are dependent on the reaction of others; as long as they see something or someone changing and adapting, they will follow through.  The resistors are those individuals who are threatened and feel afraid of change. 

Finally, what should women do to advance their career to leadership positions?

Jeroen stated that if a woman wants to advance her career, she has to put in her best effort.  She has to realize that it comes with commitment to advocate for what you want to do.  She should be very clear and vocal about her career goals.  Most importantly, she must let the decision-makers in the organization know about her career goals and ambitions.

Marguerite highlighted the importance of doing the job well and having visibility at the same time.  Let it be known by everyone concerned that you delivered a job well done.”

She also emphasized that while it’s good to strive for perfection, women should be happy to settle with excellence.  Waiting for perfection would only hold them back from doing all the things they ought to do.

In addition, Rhonda shared that women should get honest people for honest feedback; people who will advise them on things they need to improve on.

Studies have shown that a well-distributed male and female workforce significantly improves productivity, although other factors such as the size of the firm and the type of employee also come into play. This means that advocating gender equity policies and improving welfare treatment between males and females contributes a lot to the improvement and success of any organization. These findings are enough to necessitate a conversation about the current state of gender equality in the workplace.

Ebere Akadiri

Ebere Akadiri

Ebere Akadiri is an accomplished entrepreneur and an advocate for women in leadership. Her passion to inspire others to achieve their goals drove her to found Rise and Lead Women along with her co-founder, Poonam Barua. Their mission is to inspire women to take the lead in closing the gender gap in workplaces and in business.

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