To be a leader, first think like a leader
There's been plenty written about the lack of women in leadership roles.
Even the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently admitted at a meeting that he doesn't have "nearly enough" women in his cabinet and that governments and big corporations need to do more to encourage women into senior management positions.
But a research study by a Sydney-based business coach has found a deeper issue is not only the lack of women in these roles but how the women who have been promoted to these roles identify themselves as leaders.
In addition to running her own business, Selftalk, Suzi Skinner was also the research lead in a three-year study on women in leadership that was supported by the Institute of Coaching at Harvard University.
The study reviewed the careers of 11 senior women who had worked with executive coaches to provide some new insights into the development needs of women.
Skinner says Australian companies are still failing to promote women into senior management positions despite the calls for quotas.
"There has been an increase in the number of female directors from 8 per cent in 2010 to 9.7 per cent in 2012 but this still means the split is 90-10 in favour of men," she said.
"The research I did showed that when it comes to leadership identify, we have been great at recognising a skills-based approach is important but not so good at recognising the importance of knowing how a person views themselves in that role.
"This is the area that I feel really needs developing if we are to have more successful female senior managers."
Skinner said Australian companies are good at ensuring a gender balance at graduate intake and middle management level, but it is at senior management level where the imbalance occurs.
"I found even when women become leaders in a senior management role, they often find they are still not treated as they should be," she said.
"It might be that in meetings they are not being listened to, or people will talk through their presentations. One of my core findings is the need to create an environment where women are taken seriously and that will entail a major mindset shift."
Skinner said it can be a surprise for women once they reach the senior management level.
"There is an assumption that once they have been in a middle management role for 15 years then a senior role is the next step up and they are prepared for it," she said.
"But my research shows such a move has a big impact on them and can be quite a shock. It is very different and the lack of women at these levels doesn't help."
One of the solutions Skinner puts forward is the need to redefine leadership.
Until the 1990s, leadership models were based on Caucasian males.
"We've been socialised in male terms and more needs to be done to sustain women leaders," she said.
"A women's professional sense is something that evolves over an entire career and becomes a 'way of being' rather than a 'way of doing'."
One finding is that many women are confident about their ability to do their own job but question their leadership ability. Skinner advises women to seek leadership opportunities such as offers to lead projects or committees in order to build up their confidence and experience.
"Some of the factors that can derail a women in this situation is the glass ceiling, a mindset of traditional gendered roles, family and home issues and self-limiting beliefs," Skinner said.
"What can help is having a range of role models where you can imitate good behaviour from leaders of both genders and relying on a team of helpers both inside and outside the workplace."
Women in senior roles also need to ask what type of leader they want to be, Skinner said.
"We don't need everyone to aspire to be a CEO but they need to be OK about it if they want to become one," she said.
"While leaders need to be authentic about who they are, this doesn't mean they need to be rigid and unable to change to adapt to the circumstances."
Sydney Morning Herald