Mixed-gender leadership teams key to business success

Bettina Al-Sadik-Lowinski
What do international male business leaders have to say about gender diversity, the rise of talented women into management and opportunities to work together in boardrooms.
Bettina Al-Sadik-Lowinski

What do international male business leaders have to say about gender diversity, the rise of talented women into management and opportunities for the sexes to work together harmoniously in boardrooms – and the obstacles that stand in the way?

A recent study, based on interviews of top male – and female – managers from eleven countries, gave rare insight into these issues.

The study shows how both sexes can work together in international companies to build a brighter future. The outcome is both a call for greater gender equality at senior level in global companies and a guide to how it can be achieved.

It gives women who are interested in pursuing a management career an insight into men's views, as well as advice on their personal career development. And it suggests strategies that executives can adopt to strengthen diversity, build mixed leadership teams and help secure their companies' long-term success.

The research also analyzes the conflict experienced by many men, who are torn between the desire to support women and their continued attachment to old role models. Many men fear losing face and being shown up by strong female colleagues. They want approval from women, rather than aggression. The interviewees also discuss what they see as women's strengths, such as their positive, calming influence in male-dominated meetings.

They see other men as more decisive and willing to take risks – a combination they consider vital for managers but that, in their experience, most women lack. The men agree that women and their skills should be better represented on company boards.

They attribute the current imbalance to the fact that many talented women are hesitant to pursue their career ambitions or are unable to overcome the barriers created by existing power structures. These and other views shared in the interviews will provide readers with plenty of food for thought.

All the male top managers who were interviewed agree that the times are moving in women's favour. Companies achieve better results when women are equally involved and are able to contribute their distinctive strengths. In China a higher proportion of women leaders are present in the executive teams, more than in many other countries in the world. But in some industries and some regions more can be achieved.

The best way to persuade sceptical men is to point to hard facts about the benefits of mixed leadership teams. Various international studies show that good collaboration between men and women on the management floors leads to better overall performance for their companies, but not all companies are yet aware of this fact.

The men paint a picture of a gender-inclusive corporate culture embedded in a guiding vision of broad-based diversity. They explain the strategies they have adopted to enable more women to climb to the top of their companies.

A broad-based diversity approach expands diversity beyond just women and also considers other underrepresented groups – such an approach is more likely to win support from men than one focused solely on gender diversity. The in-depth qualitative interviews reveal that, in the men's view, companies with a balanced proportion of women and men are more successful than those that continue to rely on traditionally male corporate management teams.

When most people think manager, they think male. Boardrooms around the world are still dominated by 'alpha' men and their assertive, decisive leadership styles. Both men and women continue to have unconscious bias against female leaders.

But in many companies, no work has yet been done to address these biases, and so executives are opposed to providing the necessary support.

"We need to build bridges," said Edwin Diender, CIO, Huawei Technologies, in the interview. "There needs to be a point defined in the middle of the bridge where female and male strengths automatically combine to create shared leadership with better results."

Mixed-gender leadership teams that productively combine men's and women's strengths are the secret key to success for companies around the globe.

The outcome of this new global research stimulates discussion on the issue of gender diversity and mixed leadership. It shows how talented men and women can harmonize their strengths and work together to build a brighter future.

In China, with a higher proportion of women in senior leadership, many companies prove to be on the right path.

(The author is a management researcher, executive coach (MCC, ICF) and founder of the Global Women Career Lab initiative, and author of "How Chinese Women Rise," which explored how Chinese female managers rise to the highest positions. Her new book "Alpha Males and Alpha Females: Male Executives from around the World on How to Increase Gender Diversity in Senior Management" shows how men and women can work together effectively in their companies' leadership teams. The views are her own.)

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