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Women on Boards: Beyond Gender to Leadership

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Last week, Catalyst released its yearly rundown of women in the Fortune 500. And it's more of the same: The percentage of women directors in the Fortune 500 has hovered consistently between 16% and 17% since 2011, despite the lively cultural debate about the importance of women in leadership positions. Similarly, at the sixth Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), only 16% of the 2,500 delegates were female, down from 17% in 2013. A Harvard Business Review article (aptly titled "Women on Boards: Another Year, Another Disappointment") went on to do a close case study analysis of New Zealand, a country lauded by WEF for closing the gender gap in so many areas -- economic participation, political empowerment, educational attainment and health and survival -- yet has a paltry 5% of women in Chairperson positions.

So what gives? Why, amidst a flurry of discussion about the importance of gender equality, an outpouring of women's networking and educational organizations and even legislative gender quotas for corporate boards, is there still such meager female representation at the top? Is this the best we can do? Why is gender parity such a challenge?

Our research for The Athena Doctrine suggests the disappointing numbers are not due to public opinion. We fielded a study of 64,000 people in 13 countries which revealed public opinion is in favor of increasing the proportion of women in visible positions: 58% of people believe that if there were more women in power, companies would have greater economic prosperity and 62% feel that if there were more women in power, society would be fairer. However, while 90% of people polled agree that women should be treated equally, the staggeringly low statistics of women in the boardroom and women attending The WEF tell a different story.

A closer look suggests that the issue is organizational and that the lack of women in leadership positions is a symptom of corporations simply failing to notice that leadership has new requirements. In an open, social and interdependent economy, the skills and competencies required for leading are changing. In other words, this is more about leadership style -- the skills and competencies that corporate America rewards -- as opposed to gender.

As leaders rise up the corporate ladder, they come to realize the skills they needed to get to the top are not the same ones they need to stay there. In a world of co-creation, Twitter and intertwined supply chains, the effective CEO understands that 'command and control' has given way to continuous engagement. Yet the compensation and reward structures for those below are rarely, if ever, based on how empathetic or collaborative an executive is. In the past, competencies like collaboration, vulnerability and empathy were viewed as "soft" skills. However, these skills have tremendous value and extend far beyond favorable perceptions. Incorporating these skills results in tangible business outcomes for companies. In fact, leaders who embrace flexibility, diversity of thought and compassion increase ROI in their firm's human capital, jumpstart innovation, are more able to retain key talent and improve employee well-being regardless of their gender.

We asked our international survey sample to define the qualities of ideal modern leadership. And across 13 cultures, competencies like independence, aggression and pride are only weakly correlated with the ideal modern leader while skills like selflessness, empathy and flexibility are strongly associated with 'the ideal modern leader.' Instead, we find that 84% of people believe a successful career requires collaboration and sharing and 77% of people favor being open and flexible. Valuing these skills -- and rewarding them explicitly -- may help to actually achieve gender parity at the leadership level.

Further, our data revealed these qualities to be more feminine rather than masculine, yet people also believed they were accessible to anyone. This means that bringing the best of what both men and women offer to the workplace is a new paradigm of Twenty-First Century Leadership, rather than simply an earnest plea for more diversity and inclusivity from The HR department. Valuing feminine skills and competencies -- from both men and women -- are not a nice-to-have, they are a business imperative.

Promoting women to boards and the C-suite is a necessary step in the right direction. However, its success is limited by the organizational culture and priorities in many of these rooms. While it's one thing to fill seats in the boardroom (and promote the descriptive representation of women), it doesn't always mean filling the void of the female leadership style (which addresses substantive representation).

We need to elevate redressing this discrepancy to an organizational priority and begin to closely examine the business cultures that achieve parity in gender distribution and the skills and competencies they hire for, measure, incentivize and reward. We need to laud and then emulate companies that emphasize the importance of new, empathic leadership and only then will we bridge this disconnect between peoples' validation of the importance of women's contributions with actual female representation at the top.

John Gerzema is co-author of The Athena Doctrine: How Women (And The Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule The Future and a Fellow at The Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard College @johngerzema

Meredith L. Sadin is a PhD candidate in Politics and Social Policy at Princeton University and was just named a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar at UC-Berkeley/UCSF.

Their company 21CL designs empirical research and leadership training for FORTUNE 1000 Companies