I recently read an article that sets out 5 reasons why having women in leadership benefits an entire company. The writer’s argument goes something like this: if having more women in your workforce means better problem solving and profitability; if female leaders are more trusted, more collaborative, and make terrific mentors; and if millennial women are more educated than men, then why are there still large gender gaps in the percentage of women at all levels from entry level positions to top executive and governance roles. To strengthen this argument, consider the disparity in pay: full time employed women earn on average 19% less than their male counterparts.

My question is, what exactly is going on? Clearly, there is no rational explanation for this disconnect. Back in the 1990s, the reason given was that there were not enough women in the pipeline and they had not yet advanced to senior levels. 2014 data tells us that 32% of senior management roles are filled by women, which seems like a pretty healthy pipeline. 47% of SMEs in Canada are totally or partially owned by women with average EBITA that is approaching parity. Surely there is a pool of talent here that could be drawn from to move the percentage of women on corporate boards above 20% in Canada.

These numbers tell me that  the explanation must be irrational. There are lots of theories that take this tack. One suggests that no one objects to women in leadership roles anymore, they just prefer men. Another posits that deeply engrained gender norms in our society penalize women who defy them because the actions that leaders take are not what is expected from a woman. As one researcher put it, having  woman fulfills a leadership role may elicit negative reactions while she receives positive evaluation for her fulfillment of this role at the same time. How crazy-making is that?

I see no easy answer to this dilemma, but I would encourage business and organizational leaders to consider the final argument put forward in the articles mentioned above. A 2016 survey of nearly 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries confirmed what numerous studies over the last decade have found: more female leaders in top management positions correlates with increased profitability. What is business going to do about maximizing the benefits of this under-tapped resource? And, perhaps more importantly, when?

Women in Leadership

By Jane Rounthwaite

Executive Management & Coaching

Visit Osborne-group.com for other Principals’ ideas and opinions on a range of topics. The Osborne Group provides interim executive management, consulting and project support across all sectors and over a broad scope of service areas.