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How women can close the leadership gender gap

Ambitious women face many hurdles, but these can be overcome in the search for a place at the top table. 

The issues of gender discrimination in the workforce and the gender pay gap are subject to increasing analysis – and rightly so. Given the amount of catching up to do, the equalisation of gender at the most senior levels of business should be on the agenda of companies in all professions, including accountancy.

Discrimination and pay are two critical issues that need to be addressed for a fairer working world and it is important that the accountancy profession continues to encourage women to aspire to positions of leadership within the industry. Those who climb the leadership ladder will in turn inspire others as they lead the way.

I truly hope that any woman reading this article and planning for promotion has never felt discriminated against or held back in so may me way because of their gender. Accountancy is a great career choice for women and men alike, and it offers huge scope for ambitious and consistent people.

The business case for equality

So, why does the accountancy profession – or, indeed, any profession – need more women on board? According to a study by The Centre for Creative Leadership, having more women in the workplace simply makes an organisation a better place in which to work. Not only that, having a higher percentage of female talent in an organisation predicted more job satisfaction; more organisational dedication; more meaningful work; and less burnout.

But that’s not all. The researchers also found that having more women in the workplace was positively related to employee engagement and retention. Specifically, when asked why they stay with their current employer, people from organisations with a high percentage of women were more likely to cite positive and meaningful organisational culture. This includes enjoyable work; a job that fits well with other areas of their life; and opportunities to make a difference.

These new findings persist regardless of participants’ age, industry, organisation size, leadership level, ethnicity or gender. In fact, while both men and women in our survey responded with this same positive pattern of results, the findings were even stronger for men on some measures.

The emotional quotient

Research has shown that women are more naturally empathetic and have a slightly higher level of emotional intelligence functioning than men. When in leadership positions, emotional intelligence can set you apart and allow you to better handle yourself, others and what is happening around you.

Women can read a room in less than a second and generally have an easier time stepping into others’ shoes and showing empathy. These are incredibly powerful skills. We know that there is a growing empathy deficit in workplaces and that social connectedness increases performance and drive within a workplace, but if fewer women occupy leadership roles, this deficit may widen. The women leaders I am privileged enough to work with agree that it is vital that women do not feel that they must behave as a man would. They urge women to use their femininity and unique style to lead.

Empower through trust

To achieve gender equality, organisations must first learn how best to empower their female employees. In so doing, they will also improve the engagement, outcome, performance and happiness of both men and women in the workplace. To have an attractive employer brand, organisations must also find ways to encourage a more flexible and trusting workplace – one that encourages ownership and responsibility for work delivery on-site as well as remotely when required.

This is not a gender issue; it is more about flexibility for both men and women that accommodates the need to balance personal and family demands and provides a roadmap to share the burdens and responsibilities of family life more effectively. One way to do this is to ensure that remote working systems are in place, including protocols for managing physical files.

A cultural shift may also be required, one that gives employees the flexibility to work away from their desks, and trust is at the core.

The millennial question

Organisations must also consider the young women rising through the ranks who typically fall into the ‘millennial’ category. Millennials are more likely to expect their workplace to be flexible and don’t always see the value in adhering to ‘traditional’ rules. They also need to feel a connection to their work and want mentors to teach and inspire them. They want a clear career plan and although professionally immature, they need to feel that they will be provided with the scope and opportunities to progress.
If we truly wish to encourage women leaders of the future, we must consider this millennial group and show them how other women have succeeded in their journey to the leadership table. Without this inspiration, they may falter.

Strategies for success

Leadership is quite the enigma, irrespective of gender. While some leaders have natural skills in influence, for example, they may lack natural skills in business strategy. Leadership therefore requires skills development and continued learning.
Managers in today’s evolving corporate landscape face regular recalibration and with this comes challenge. Building resilience is a must for any leader, and this must be done while adapting to continued globalisation, tightening budgets and stricter reporting deadlines. Every leader needs an up-to-date tool-kit to help them improve their interpersonal skills incrementally and consistently.

Men and women share a number of common leadership weaknesses. With daily stresses, even highly functioning leaders react to situations as they happen but don’t necessarily know how to carve out the time required to reflect on, and analyse, situations under pressure.

For those females with promotion ambitions, here are some strategies that will help you advance your cause:

  • Seek out mentors. Ideally, they should be women in your industry and in positions to which you aspire. Study what makes them successful;
  • Partner with and support your boss in reaching his or her goals. This is about learning the skills to ‘manage up’; and
  • Look for every opportunity to demonstrate your leadership capability and skills at work

And here are some pitfalls to avoid:

  • Don’t allow yourself to be overtaken by the distraction of your ambition or goals for development. Remember, you have a day job so do it well. This will ensure you are not dispensable; and
  • Don’t put off any plans for leadership development training that will improve your self-awareness and influencing ability. Invest in building these leadership capabilities.

And finally, a recently-published Accenture report offers three powerful accelerators to help women close the pay gap:

  • Career strategy: aim high, make informed choices, and manage your career pro-actively;
  • Tech immersion: acquire stronger technology and digital skills; and
  • Mentoring: find a suitable mentor who will inspire you to become a leader.

Performance matters

To master your leadership edge in the field of accountancy, you need to shine a spotlight on your leadership style. Remember, your role in your company isn’t that of a superhero – rather, it is that of a transformative finance partner.

To cultivate this reputation, be seen as someone who constantly monitors their own performance and that of others. In doing so, you will take a significant step towards career equalisation for women.

Jane is author of The Career Book and co-founder of The Leadership Rooms.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 of Accountancy Ireland.