Women in the boardroom will take willpower, not quotas

"Every company in the world should be capable of having a workforce that looks like a society they inhabit."
6 March 2020

Going beyond the glass ceiling, women leaders are on the rise. Source: Shutterstock

In 2012, the European Union (EU) Commission released a plan to bring more women in boardrooms to address the issue of gender inequality in the senior ranks of publicly listed companies. 

The EU Commission envisioned that by 2020, 40 percent of boardroom members would be women. 

Did the EU reach the target? 

According to a 2019 study from the commission, though employment rates of men and women have witnessed significant growth, gender inequality persists in the labor market. Across the EU, less than 10 percent of board chairs and chief executives are female. In Malta, Greece, and Estonia, women make up less than one in 10 non-executive directors. 

Meanwhile, France was the only member state to achieve more than a 40 percent share of women on boards, followed by Italy (36 percent), Sweden (36 percent), and Finland (34 percent). 

Though the success and failure of the quota systems are reflected in the figures, the yardstick to measure the merits of a board member should lie in ability and skills, rather than the pronoun. 

In an exclusive interview with Margaret Heffernan, TechHQ dived deep into the topic of women in boardrooms.

Based on her experience in leading three technology companies and her research for her publication, Women on Top — Heffernan has interviewed hundreds of women business owners and shared extensive insights about leadership styles that are unique to women leaders in the boardroom.

“My observation, and what my research shows, is that women are more likely to lead collaboratively. They are less likely to depend on absolute power and more likely to depend on culture; creating a culture in which people work together effectively.”

Based on her research, Heffernan explained women prefer to lead an entire company together as a single organism than assuming the role of an engineer who has the authority to turn the machine on. 

Since women are responsible for about 85 percent of consumer purchases, and for about 65 percent of business to business purchasing, women predominately are attuned to the market trends. 

“We’re very alert to the market because we are the market,” shared Heffernan. As a result, women share “a fantastically good instinct for what doesn’t work.” A great asset to steer organizations in the right direction while corresponding with the latest social and business trends. 

Recognizing an imbalance of gender representation in the market and having been in non-diverse companies, women leaders are more driven than ever to perpetuate diversity, proven to yield significant business impact. 

Even so, this belief is not translated into aggressive approaches that hire women candidates exclusively. Instead, “they [women executives] typically hired a very diverse workforce and created companies that were really outstanding for men and women both,” said Heffernan. 

Another key characteristic that women leaders generally exhibit is their strong social skills, which heighten their attention to building stronger partners and customers. 

In leveraging connections and partnerships, women leaders possess a sharp sense in achieving win-win situations that often seal the deal: “When they [women leaders] did mergers or acquisitions, they were much more thoughtful about the personal and cultural elements,” Heffernan added. 

Women in Tech

When asked about the unique landscape of women in the tech industry, Heffernan shared her experience when she was running tech companies in the US. 

“One problem for women in tech is it’s pretty lonely,” she said. “I think I knew two other women who ran tech companies. Conversely, my male colleagues knew hundreds of men who did what they did.” 

Having a small circle of peers and friends that share similar challenges places women leaders in an isolating position in the industry. Lacking support or connections can make industry or career progress harder: “it’s much harder for women to get investment in their businesses,” Heffernan noted. 

Heffernan doesn’t believe the business gender gap is a “pipeline problem”. Instead, it comes down to mindset: “every company in the world should be capable of having a workforce that looks like a society they inhabit — which means roughly, 50/50 women and men.”