Women in Leadership – We have a Crisis
Updated: Aug 18
There’s a sense of frustration at the low number of women in senior political positions across Australia. See, for example: "She won’t be right, mate: how the government shaped a blokey lockdown followed by a blokey recovery" Chris Wallace, Professor University of Canberra, ‘The Conversation’ June 2020
The numbers tell the story.
The Australian Cabinet has 6 women out of 23 members. The powerful Expenditure Review Committee (a sub-committee of Cabinet) has no women and the COVID-19 Co-ordination Committee was launched with 2 women and 8 men (it now has 4 women).
And when it comes to the proportion of women in senior political roles, Australia ranks 57th according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum.
This depressing state of affairs has prompted Women’s Agenda.com to announce that ‘when it comes to politics, Australia is clearly in the grips of a she-cession.’ This is notwithstanding that the bulk of COVID related job losses have involved women who also occupy a higher proportion of ‘high risk essentials jobs.’
It’s clear that women need a louder voice at the table so women’s interests are heard.
A lot is being written about women leaders in the pandemic crisis. There’s a realization that seven of the best performing countries (in terms of the proportion of cases and deaths) have women leaders. In June 2020, for example, the ‘Harvard Business Review’ reported that ‘countries with women leaders have reported six times fewer deaths from the virus than countries with male leaders.’
New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Taiwan, Iceland and Norway have women leaders and are top performers.
The United States, Brazil, United Kingdom and Italy have men as leaders and are lower performers.
Now, there could be many reasons why the countries that have women leaders are doing well; the state of their health systems, funds available, geography and pure luck. However, all leaders have had access to similar scientific evidence and analysis and have had broadly similar problems to deal with. There’s clearly reason to dig deeper.
Speaking recently, Margaret Heffernan (author of the new book ‘Uncharted, How to Map the Future Together’) put the current success of women leaders down to:
‘The amount of trust they’ve built up with their citizens. These leaders built a substantial amount of trust before the crisis began; building trust had become a habit, not a one-off event. They’ve done this by the way they work with people and the way they connect, collaborate and communicate. When the unexpected hits they have a lot of credit in the bank. They don’t think of themselves or their supporters when taking action, they think of everyone. They have a broad base of support from people who trust what they say and do.’ (’Rethink Leadership’ BBC).
There’s also evidence that women leaders have put the long term well-being of their citizens ahead of economic interests (‘Forbes’ April 2020).
And the lower performing countries with men in charge? Anne Appleburn (author of ‘Twilight of Democracy’) argues that these leaders often came to power using divisive language and rhetoric – employing slogans that identify them as leader of part of the true nation (USA, Brazil). In some cases there’s almost been cultivated distrust – setting one group against another (foreigners, the elite, outsiders).
Sometimes leaders have openly promoted conflict with a trusted individual (for example, Trump v Fauci). Add distrust in the institutions of Government and these become the countries where people struggle to follow scientific guidelines or evidence based advice. Citizens distrust the information they receive.
These are complex issues and before we get carried away, it’s worth noting that Belgium has both a female Prime Minister and Health Minister and is one of the worst performing countries. And who knows how an autocratic women leader like Margaret Thatcher would have fared?
But we think the evidence is pretty compelling - and there are lessons for leaders in business to learn, particularly as we move to the ‘new normal.’
We’ve regularly argued that it’s the ‘softer, human’ aspects of leadership that are most important The leaders who portray these attributes and have ‘credit in the bank’ through the trust they generate have the greatest impact on the culture and levels of engagement in their organization. See our blog ‘The One Essential Ingredient for a Positive Company Culture’.
In politics and business, women leaders operate in a world ‘not made for them.’ This means they need to be more adaptable, agile and resilient. Women bring a different range of skills and experience to leadership. It’s a great shame this isn’t recognized at the top table of Australian politics.
Here's a great video from our neighbours across the Tasman addressing a crisis:
Here's a different video from our friends in the USA addressing a crisis: