Thirty years ago, Iceland’s Vigdis Finnbogadottir became the world’s first female elected head of state. She was a popular leader, as can be seen from the fact that she was re-elected three times before retiring in 1996.
Indeed, her election could have been a turning point for women in all professions — a sign that their leadership abilities are both as effective, and as well-regarded, as their male counterparts.
However, three decades later, it could seem that there is little reason to be optimistic. While there is a slight upward trend in the number of women leaders, the overall figures are still very low.
In 2010, women hold only 90 (17 percent) of the 535 seats in the US Congress: 73 of them are in the House of Representatives and 17 in the Senate.
In the US judicial branch, the recent appointment of Elena Kagan as the 112th US Supreme Court justice places a third woman on the court. Yet, she becomes only the fourth in history to serve on the nation’s highest court.
Looking internationally, currently, of the 192 UN member countries, there are 8 female presidents, 9 female prime ministers, and 3 reigning queens, which means 10 percent female heads of state in total.
In business leadership, in 2009, women held 49 percent of the jobs in the US and 50 percent of all managerial positions. Even a report from the US Department of Labor back in 2006 noted that women outnumber men in such occupations as financial managers; human resource managers; educational administrators; medical and health services managers; accountants and auditors; budget analysts; and property, real estate, and social community service managers.
So while at the middle-management level, women have made substantial progress, at the top management level the statistics are still quite depressing. In 2010, only 2.8 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives were female. In the FTSE 500 the statistics are even worse — only 1.8 percent of such companies are led by women.
Fortunately, there are some bright spots. In Norway, for example, about 44.2 percent of board members are women. This has not come about by chance; in 2008 the country passed a law requiring publicly-listed companies to have boards comprising at least 40 percent women.
Naturally enough, the world is watching closely to see how this works out and, at the moment, the results are looking positive. Spain and France are both considering introducing legislation or formal quotas, while Sweden hopes to reach its 40 percent target by 2015. And it’s not simply countries introducing these targets.
Businesses are also setting themselves challenging goals around the number of women in senior management. For example, Telecom recently announced that it wants 30 percent of its top positions filled by women within the next four years.
Companies are not setting themselves these targets out of some generalized notion of equality but because there is a strong business case for them to do so.
There has been a great deal of research in this area which suggests the value of having gender diverse management teams.
For example, companies that have more than three women in management positions tend to have better return on equity and assets than do those with fewer women. They also tend to score higher on organizational effectiveness criteria.
Equally, women board members tend to be very well-prepared for meetings, which raises the benchmark for others. This subsequently leads to better discussions, and better decisions.
So, there is a clear business case for companies hiring and promoting more senior women. But what is life like for the women who are already in these roles?
When we have less than 15 percent of a minority in a social category, we talk about tokens. And anyone who is in that position is likely to be under a huge amount of pressure, as they are highly visible, and frequently will feel that they represent not just themselves, but their entire category.
At 25 percent — in many companies this is currently the target — they are still in a minority, but they are no longer tokens. The tipping point is 35 percent: once we reach this level, visibility becomes less of an issue and women’s identity as women becomes less salient.
Past this point, when women speak, they are heard as individuals with their own separate backgrounds, values and personalities, not as “the woman”. Her opinions and views are not reduced to her gender.
The problem at the moment is that we have so few senior women in management positions that they are perceived as outsiders. This creates a kind of legitimacy gap, in that they do not fit the (male) stereotype of what it is to be a leader.
This leads in turn to another problem, which is that male leaders tend to be associated with “agentic” behavior: they are more likely to be proactive, assertive, dominant, in control of the situation.
Female leaders, by contrast, show what we call “communal values”: friendliness, support, warmth and a caring attitude. When we look at these two sets of values, it becomes clear that it is the agentic approach that we associate with leadership.
Many women come to the conclusion that, as a result of these stereotypes, the only way for them to be perceived to be legitimate leaders is to emulate male leaders.
However, the real answer is not so straightforward. If women simply emulate men, they violate the gender stereotype, which creates a perception that they are being phony.
This creates a real problem, and can lead to them being penalized for being inauthentic leaders. Women should instead blend both sets of characteristics.
Indra Nooyi, the chief executive and chairwoman of PepsiCo, does this very successfully; she can make tough decisions and is very assertive in negotiations, but her direct reports also describe her as extremely warm and caring.
What then of the future? Well, despite the disappointing statistics I quoted at the beginning of this article, I believe that there are many good reasons to be positive. I strongly believe that the next five to 10 years will see a dramatic change for the better.
Women managers can contribute to this by understanding that there are certain expectations related to organizational leadership, and developing their skills accordingly.
Men can both help and benefit by understanding the specific problems that women business leaders face.
Ginka Toegel is professor of organizational behavior and leadership at IMD (www.imd.ch). She is director of the Strategies for Leadership program, which is open only to women.