Balance at the top gives an edge

By Helen Frances

Enlightened firms realise the across-the-board benefits of having women in senior management roles

Women add a vital dimension to any leadership team. Photo / Thinkstock
Women add a vital dimension to any leadership team. Photo / Thinkstock

Talented women are significantly under-represented in top jobs, says senior leadership coach and researcher Anne Fitzpatrick. But organisations can take action to level the playing field and make workplaces more representative of their staff and customer/client bases. That seems to be beneficial for business across the spectrum.

"Some of the research I have done shows that organisations with a good percentage of women on their senior leadership team out-perform those that don't," Fitzpatrick says.

"Talented women deliver the results and do it in a sustainable way - people enjoy working for them, people stay and have a good ongoing commitment, so you get a track record of delivery over time. It's how it is done that is important."

Outcomes are the same for both genders but there is generally a difference in style. Men tend to be very target-focused, whereas women are more holistic and relationship oriented.

Fitzpatrick's research in 2010 on women in leadership roles in the New Zealand public service showed the country had slipped from its 2003 OECD rating of fourth highest in its proportion of women in senior management (31 per cent) to 17th place (27 per cent) in 2009. The number of female chief executives in the public service had also declined. While she says there is a more recent increase in appointments of women to senior positions, three years ago she was something of a lone voice, but the trends she found were confirmed.

Describing herself as a "make it happen" person, Fitzpatrick outlines how to balance the leadership genders. She speaks from wide experience in senior management roles in public, private and not-for-profit sectors and professional and career development work with male and female senior managers. This led to research on preparing women for top leadership roles and a Graduate Diploma in Psychology.

Fitzpatrick says a variety of factors help foster women's development as leaders - everything from mentoring, offering a range of work experiences to women and sponsoring, where someone takes a woman under their wing and advocates for her. She cites BNZ, which won a United Nations award for promoting gender equality.

"One of the most important things is leadership from the top. The CEO and leadership team need to actually put it on the agenda - that they want more women represented at senior levels, hold their managers to account all the way through the organisation and report on a monthly basis - that it's built into their accountabilities and performance reviews. This makes a huge difference. It's about being inclusive and operating on an equal basis. When the senior leadership reflects your community more - clients and employees - then you get better decision-making."

Unconscious bias can influence appointments and performance appraisals. She says experiments show that males will regularly get better performance reviews than females and it is the same with remuneration and promotions. Women often have to address their own internal barriers - messages such as "I should", "I might", "I'll try", "I'm not good enough". Women may be reluctant to take (informed) risks and often revise their earlier career aspirations in response to demands in their personal life. Fitzpatrick encourages women to understand more about risk and managing informed risk.

Flexible work practices support women's parenting commitments and several traditionally male sectors, such as Defence, are now looking at how they can attract more women, retain them and help develop their career pathways.

Fitzpatrick advocates targets over quotas. "We aim to have 30 per cent of women by a particular date, (whereas) we have to have a quota regardless of a person's merit." Quotas can create a backlash by passing over people with stronger credentials.

A highly successful leader, Lieutenant Colonel Karyn Thompson, joined the New Zealand Army in 1989. Her current position as director of the NZ Defence Force's (NZDF) Institute for Leader Development will change next month when she is promoted to colonel and a new role as director, personnel capability management for the NZDF and chief of human resources for the NZ Army.

Thompson has been deployed on operational missions to the Sinai, the former Yugoslavia and East Timor. She chairs the NZDF Women's Development Steering Group, which provides strategic advice to Defence leaders to increase women's participation across the NZDF and advocates for women's development initiatives within the force.

Thompson says she is a "purposeful, organised and principled leader", comfortable taking charge of people, teams and resources to achieve outcomes, and is experienced in leading change. She sets out to build a collaborative organisational culture "where people are valued for what they bring rather than their rank or position."

Her upbringing, among other factors, influenced Thompson's development as a leader. She grew up on a sheep farm and enjoyed the outdoors, hunting and tramping.

"I was always told that women could do anything and, growing up on the farm, I was expected to carry out the same duties as my brothers. (So) I was in my element during field training exercises."

Early on in her army career, she found herself becoming "one of the boys", often speaking and behaving like a man in order to fit into the team.

"At that time, only 8 per cent of our uniformed staff were women. There were few female role models and I was often the only woman on development courses or at meetings. Nowadays, I no longer feel that I have to be 'one of the boys'."

Her husband, Major Dean Paul, is very supportive and understands the military.

She says becoming a wife and mother of three children has softened her leadership approach, and she has learned a lot from working with other women.

Thompson's life experiences as a woman have enabled her to sometimes bring a different perspective to the table.

"However, being a woman can be an advantage and a disadvantage when deployed on operations overseas. I would get access to different information than my male counterparts because the women and children in the villages where we would operate would talk to me and tell me what was really going on, what the real issues were and how we could help. Having a woman in the team frequently changed the dynamics of a situation and I would often be charged with managing a potentially volatile situation."

Meeting other women, learning from them, mentoring and supporting others, and receiving constructive feedback have also helped her grow as a leader.

- NZ Herald

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