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The Future Examined: Leadership vision brings women into picture

Gender roles are changing but not quickly enough for women.

The idea that we need more women in leadership positions is not new, but the only way to bring about change is to alter our perception of leadership.

For Dr Andrea North-Samardzic, Course Director and Lecturer in organisational behaviour at Deakin University’s Faculty of Business and Law, the solution lies in organisations broadening their vision of leadership away from the “traditional”, to allow them to take advantage of the full range of women’s leadership abilities.

“Our hiring decisions rest heavily on how roles have been filled in the past and what qualities we typically assume the leader will require in these roles,” says North-Samardzic. “We need to broaden our traditional vision of what makes a leader and, in particular, we need to accept and develop leaders with non-traditional work patterns and attitudes.”

She cites the example of the typical assumption the leader will need to travel a lot, to maximise “face time”, on-location time with teams and direct reports. “Such a pattern automatically works against women with carer responsibilities,” she says. “But it’s far from obvious that a particular amount of face time is necessary to be a successful CEO. Being able to travel, being able to network and socialise … people say: ‘That’s just part of the job.’ Well, can’t the nature of the job change?”

Gender roles are changing, she notes, but not quickly enough for women to be included in the way that organisations typically assess potential leaders.

Thirty years ago, mothers assumed most of the parenting responsibilities in most families, but this has changed dramatically.

“Now I can’t swing a cappuccino in the eastern suburbs without hitting a man with his Baby Bjorn. So we have seen some changes around what our gender roles in society are like,” North-Samardzic says.

And these days some fathers have parental leave rights — although, as she points out, social expectations mean fathers take up those rights far less frequently than mothers do.

The same expectations mean women married to men typically assume the bulk of domestic duties, even though research shows no special female preference for them.

“As a result, when it comes to going from senior manager to that executive level, it’s really difficult for women to manage work-life balance,” she says.

Many women opt out and settle for a job that pays adequately while allowing them to take care of domestic duties and childcare. Consequently, they self-remove from the potential leadership pool under the prevailing models.

These models need to be disrupted, says North-Samardzic, in a way that allows women’s leadership abilities to be assessed on merit — not on how well they fit these models.

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women’s numbers are rising within the top echelons of corporations, but at a snail’s pace. In 2015-16 women made up 16.3 per cent of CEOs and business heads, barely changed from 15.7 per cent in 2013-14.

And while the proportion for women is larger at lower levels of management, the growth is almost as slow: the female share of general manager and other senior management positions rose in the same period from 27.8 per cent to 30.1 per cent.

Organisations emphasise the need to innovate and disrupt, says North-Samardzic, but when they talk about promotion and succession planning they tend to be quite conservative in their choices.

In effect, organisations need to disrupt their own thinking. “If society is to have the leadership it needs, our leadership selection processes need a shake-up,” she says.

Originally published on The Australian.

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