A Values Approach to Advancing Women in Leadership
Using Talent Management to Change the Equation
Women make up half the workforce in nearly every country around the world, even still, labor shortages call for increased participation of women workers at all levels of the organizational hierarchy. The urgency for managing the talent for that half of the workforce suggests it is time to change the equation, to bring more women into positions of influence and leadership. Recent findings from research conducted on women, their leadership and values offers new insight on strategies to advance women in leadership and why this is necessary if organizations hope to create and sustain economic competitive advantage.
Women in Leadership Globally
A review of the global perspective on women in the workforce, and women in leadership, reveals discriminatory practices in some parts of the world. A Catalyst study found that women face challenges simply getting through obstacles embedded in the hiring process; 50 percent of 143 countries evaluated do not have laws prohibiting gender discriminatory hiring practices, and only 11 percent have laws prohibiting interview questions related to family status. For many women around the world entering the workforce can be monumental. Moreover, among the G7 Countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, and USA) women comprise only 21 percent of senior roles. That number inches up to 24 percent when all countries around the world are factored into the equation. In 1996 there was one woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, today there are 24, at the current rate of increase by 2030 there will be 50 women CEOs in the Fortune 500. However, the number of women on corporate boards in the United States has stalled at 12. Indeed, progress toward gender equality is moving very slowly and may even be at a standstill.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a global think tank, recognizes the economic engine women create when they work and lead, stating “Women are the most underutilized economic asset in the world’s economy.” Figure 1 depicts an assessment of the economic impact women’s work and leadership could have on various countries by the year 2020, these figures suggest a ripple effect: women’s contribution raises the GDP significantly around the globe.   
Figure 1: Percent increase in GDP by 2020 when women enter the workforce
This impact means there is an immense opportunity to manage the talent of women worldwide in order to realize global economic improvement. In fact, Japan is addressing this issue head on. Because of cultural and role expectations, 70 percent of Japanese women quit the workforce to raise their children and take care of their families, and most do not return. Japan’s economy slowed considerably in the recent economic downturn and is not rebounding as quickly as hoped. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has issued a directive, it has been referred to as “Abenomics,” his plan is to increase the number of women in the workforce and specifically the percentage of women in executive level positions by 30 percent by 2020; he is calling for one woman executive per public company.   This is an example of the positive ripple effects resulting from an economic decision: more women in the workforce and more women in senior level positions create stronger, more profitable companies. Women help the economic engine run better.
Talent Management of Women
Let’s consider talent management at the global level by looking at three countries at very different stages along the continuum of women in leadership: China, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Talented young women in these regions are asking important questions, “How can I as a woman lead in my country, and how can I help other women like me realize their dreams of being in leadership?” Talent management involves maximizing the full potential of individuals’ competence, commitment, and contribution; the next generation of women leaders are very eager to bring their competence, commitment, and unique leadership style to organizations across the globe where they will contribute much needed diversity and balance amid the changing nature of work. Managing this talent pool is a global concern for CEOs, human resource officers, and managers who will be tasked with developing their employees.
Right now Saudi women are breaking new ground, for the first time in history women are more educated, they are working more, and starting their own businesses. There are two female CEOs, both in the financial sector, one made the Fortune list of the Global 50 Most Powerful Women. Policies and practices are changing, but for some women the pace is far too slow. Research suggests the preferred style of leading in Saudi Arabia is laissez-faire. Leaders in this cultural context trust followers to carry out their job responsibilities without a great deal of intervention or oversight. Enacting a more directive style of leadership is perceived as lacking trust. Saudi women align with this general perception and lead with a great deal of trust in others.
In China, women hold 25 percent of top seats as senior leaders of corporations, in fact seven Chinese women CEOs made the Fortune 50 Most Powerful list. Even still, Chinese women who have made it to the C-level suite express frustration at having to constantly prove themselves, they feel their work is overly scrutinized and that any hint of failing to meet expectations is fatal to their long-term career progress. In the context of a traditional culture that values hierarchy and male domination, Chinese women leaders have adopted a more transformational approach that is highly interactive in order to promote team building and harmony.
In the United States women continue to be underrepresented in the top ranks of leadership across Fortune 500 Companies, with less than two- percent of women reaching positions of CEO and only 16 percent in the C-suite. There are 23 women CEOs in the Fortune 500 and nearly all of those 23 companies have significant operations outside the U.S. In the United States women lead through collaboration using a transformational approach.
One aspect of leadership that transcends culture is values. While women leaders around the globe may differ in the exact values they hold, they do share a common desire to achieve goals and to make the way a bit easier for aspiring women who will come behind them to assume leadership roles in the future. Holding a set of highly prioritized values is an essential element of leadership. Values also play a role in creating a talent management strategy to advance women in leadership.
Women’s Leadership Values
At the heart of talent management are values. Hiring and developing talented women requires tapping into intrinsic values that inform competence, drive commitment, and sustain meaning and purpose in work. Values can be thought of as an enduring set of beliefs that are shaped by one’s life experiences, culture and even gender.  Recognizing the values of women leaders is the beginning of talent management.
To better understand value priorities that drive women in leadership, the author conducted a study with women CEO’s from the east and west coasts of the U.S. Participants from a variety of industries including technology, manufacturing, financial services companies were asked to rank order a set of values from most to least important using the Rokeach Value Survey (RVS). The participants’ combined rank ordering was then mapped to the circular structure model developed by Schwartz that captures the conflicts and compatibility among ten value domains that have been found to be consistent across cultures (see Figure 2 Achievement, Benevolence, Conformity, Hedonism, Power, Security, Self-Direction, Stimulation, Tradition, Universalism). Results from the assessment reveal a particular pattern suggesting women leaders hold a preference for benevolence and achievement values. Achievement refers to personal success through the demonstration of competence according to social standards, and benevolence is a concern for the welfare of close others in everyday interaction. Perhaps this is an optimal value combination for women leaders.
Leadership demands both benevolence and achievement values in order to be effective. Benevolence values support the relational side of leadership. An organization at its most basic level is simply a set of relationships. Leaders who are accomplished at managing relationships create successful organizations. The number one reason people leave organizations is because of fractured relationships with bosses or co-workers. Leaders who are adept at building strong and positive relationships create a firm foundation for organizational success. Benevolence values form the basis for leadership skills such as empathy and encouragement. These values preserve and enhance relationships between people and support motivation and inspiration. Leaders who demonstrate benevolence motivate followers to increase ethical sensitivity and positive engagement. Benevolence values remind the leader she is a member of a community and therefore accountable to many for her actions and decisions. However, benevolence by itself is not all that is needed for effective leadership.
Figure 2. Schwartz value domains; study results in bold
Achievement values are required to create the personal drive to establish and achieve organizational goals using influence, intelligence, and capability. Organizational success depends on the leader’s ambition to accomplish something important. Achievement values motivate the leader to develop and hone her business competence and compel her to be a continuous learner. In many ways the leader stands as the primary symbol of the organization; achievement values provide the fuel to take on this role with competence and enthusiasm. But all this drive to success requires an anchor; benevolence values are needed to anchor achievement values, without this anchor leadership runs the risk of becoming power wielding coercion. Both benevolence and achievement values are needed, one without the other will not enable effective leading.
Change the Equation for Women
Women in leadership across the globe may hold similar values and research has demonstrated that despite cultural differences women experience three persistent barriers to advancement: social, organizational, and individual. Women face social constraints in terms of gender role expectations; the restrictions of socially accepted behavior of men and women can inhibit the advancement of women in leadership. Organizational culture that is gender specific creates perceptions of role congruence regarding leadership. Individual career aspirations informed by women’s perceptions of the barriers to advancement and opportunities available to them impact the willingness to step into positions of leadership.
We have an opportunity to change the equation, to bring more women into positions of leadership globally. Because the business case to do so is urgent, we must confront the persistent barriers to women’s advancement, both at the organizational and individual level. This begins by recognizing existing cultural expectations and what it means for women to hold positions of influence. Obviously different cultures dictate different norms and around the globe restrictive norms are shifting in the direction of greater openness to women holding positions of leadership. The economic driver is a compelling force for change and offers a window of opportunity for capable women to step up and step into positions of leadership as demonstrated by the opportunities available to women in Japan. This same scenario is being played out in other regions including the Gulf nations of the Middle East. Emerging and beleaguered economies realize the necessity to manage the talent of a stronger, smarter, more diverse workforce as the means to increasing national and even global economic stability.
An examination of counter-productive norms that impact social dimensions in organizations should be undertaken if companies hope to attract and retain competent women leaders. A Stanford research initiative noted the nature of work has changed significantly but the structure of how work is accomplished remains stuck in the 1950s. Today dual career couples work 400 hours more per year as compared to 40 years ago; the pressure to put in long hours has led to a kind of heroism where the ideal worker displays extreme availability, being always “on” and available. Flexible work options are perceived as too risky because of the a real or perceived penalty for being not available, thus workers accommodate their lives to the powerful culture of the organization, setting aside personal and family care for the sake of work. Women, who still tend to take on the majority of child and family care responsibilities, are especially vulnerable in organizational cultures that expect heroic availability.
Young career women especially hold themselves to extremely high standards of perfection; if a role or job cannot be performed at a very high level of excellence, then better to opt out until one is certain she can lead with near flawless execution. This millennial generation of women would do well to seek mentors who can coach and instruct on effective ways to opt in to leadership opportunities, rather than remain on the sidelines. Moreover, the author’s study on values found that early career opportunities that allow for failure were especially important developmentally in the formation of leadership values. If women try to leap-frog over the learning that failure offers, they do themselves a great disservice.
Organizations can address barriers to women’s leadership progress by understanding the range of individual needs of women, one size does not fit all, creating a range of opportunities to attract, develop and retain talented women is needed. The Stanford initiative found that giving workers choices helps individuals tailor work to meet individual preferences and needs. Creating career path options, leadership development programs, and a culture of rewards and recognition for leadership styles that align with both women and men help mitigate individual and organizational barriers to women in leadership. Moreover, tap into the values of benevolence and achievement to empower women to lead and contribute from the intrinsic motivation to build strong relationships and accomplish aspirational goals.
Changing the equation to bring more women into positions of leadership around the globe requires lowering the social, organizational and individual barriers that inhibit women’s participation. Organizations can influence change in these three areas and especially internally through effective talent management. A key factor to managing talent is understanding the values that drive women in leadership. The author’s study suggests women lead to achieve and do so with benevolence toward others. The economic urgency to engage women in the workforce is a powerful motivator for both individual women and forward thinking organizations to tap into an underutilized resource. The time for women to opt into leadership opportunity is now, and by doing so we can change the equation.
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About the Author(s)
Bernice Ledbetter, EdD, is Practitioner Faculty in Organizational Theory & Management. She has a BA from California State University, Fresno, earned a Master of Divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary, and an EdD in Organizational Leadership at Pepperdine University. Dr. Ledbetter received the University's highest recognition for teaching, the Howard A. White Award for Teaching Excellence in 2014;, she has taught in areas of specialization that include Organizational Leadership, Ethics, and Organizational Management. Her research and teaching interests focus on leadership and values, especially gender differences, as well as on moral developmental and non-western approaches to leadership. She is a Principal in Ledbetter Consulting Group, and has worked extensively as a career management consultant and team performance coach for individuals and for major organizations like TRW. She has written and published on topics ranging from global perspectives to Christian evaluations of leadership, including invited contributions to the Global Dictionary of Theology and the Handbook of Political and Civic Leadership.