A research study by Boyden in collaboration with women business leaders across Europe.

As part of our campaign to #DisruptTheNorm, Boyden’s research among women in the c-suite explores the motivators, enablers, obstacles and solutions for increasing female leadership. This snapshot is the first in a series that focuses on specific challenges in furthering female leadership and what can be done to address them. Here we explore the working environment for women and the need for cultural change.

Our research findings reveal extraordinary courage, determination and risk appetite among female leaders, succeeding against the odds. An HR leader in retail asserts, “I succeeded due to my own drive. I am non-prestigious and I am brave. I am not afraid to fail, that is important,” while a CEO in banking explains, “I am not afraid of doing new things. I have taken a lot of decisions myself. I always think that I can cope."

While their stories are impressive, they reveal shocking behaviours in Europe’s 21st century business environment. Alongside albeit incomplete strides made by women in politics, law and medicine, organisational culture in the corporate world is still in the dark ages. The insight and experiences shared by our participants conjure an image of a female Sisyphus, constantly pushing a boulder uphill.

An Inhospitable Environment

Women pursue careers for similar reasons to men. For the majority of leaders we interviewed, a career is a natural part of their identity, a way of making their mark in life and developing their personal capabilities. But they experience different career obstacles to men that seem archaic. The top challenges reported are:

1. An old-school management style
2. Male-dominated environments
3. Outright female discrimination

The old school management style generally refers to long hours expectations. While this is seen as ‘the norm’ in developing a career, once family responsibilities kick in, it is not always possible for life to be centered round the office. The Group HR Director at a UK industrial company explains, “The old school management style means there is a perception if you are working weekends you are working harder. I had to take a step back when told I wasn’t motivated now that I have a family."

“Gender equality is less a matter of quotas and regulation, and more a matter of quality and fairness,” comments Andreas Landgrebe, Managing Partner of Boyden’s operations in Austria and CEE. “Performance needs to be measured in terms of output, but also in terms of qualitative contribution, such as team building, multicultural leadership and mentoring. These competencies are not time-based and are invaluable in a world where blending teams and nurturing digital skills are mission-critical”.

Many leaders spoke of assumptions made on their behalf once they had children, together with demands that presented practical difficulties. A Nordic board member comments, “At my previous company I had small children. The CEO said I had to stay in the evenings to take part in the ‘informal information exchange’. But in the evenings I needed to be with my children, so that was difficult."

Some of our participants face multiple discriminators, with gender, plus age or nationality clipping their leadership wings. Such differences seem to place men too far outside their comfort zone, with little middle ground on which to build a fruitful working relationship. A CEO in Sweden says, “I had an inspiring boss who left and the boss after him was not a good leader. When he left I didn’t get the job. I asked why and was told I am not Norwegian and that I am a woman. I think they were afraid of me.”

In Search of a Better Place

While work communities exact their own pressures, societal expectations play a major role. Some leaders who developed their careers through international mobility chose a country with a better environment for combining work with family and less prejudiced about nationality.

One director in infrastructure explains, “I developed a long and satisfying career in a multinational in Hong Kong and the UK. After my second child I chose to stay in the UK for a better lifestyle. I am fortunate to work in an environment that is completely nurturing. My team does a lot of international work, so they were naturally accepting (I am from Hong Kong)."

“In today’s world we have the tools to work smarter, not longer, which is an increasingly archaic approach,” says Francesca d’Arcangeli, Managing Partner and Leader of Boyden’s global Industrial practice, based in London, “Our clients need leaders who depend not on office hours, but leverage every advantage for their organisation around innovation, global insight and resilience.”

Female leaders are overcoming career obstacles at work and at home. As many as 57 percent report either family or children as being career obstacles. Despite this, these women achieved their leadership dreams and reveal the same drivers as their male counterparts. 

“I enjoy being independent, powerful and at the top of the hierarchy,” says a CEO in the United Kingdom, while a German-speaking CEO peer says, “I wanted to join the top management to create things, to be creative and proud”. For a Subsidiary Head in Southern Europe, “It’s about reaching your objectives and facing new challenges, through very hard work,” while in the Nordic Region a CEO asserts, “I never wanted a ‘position’ but a challenge”.

While such impressive women are making it to the c-suite, there are far too many not getting the boulder uphill. This loss of female talent is not only regrettable, but severely damaging for business. 

We are all contributors to the solution

While national cultures and social expectations are hard to change, business leaders have the power to transform their corporate cultures and enable women to realise their potential and untapped leadership capabilities.   

Research Snapshot 2 looks at the impact of ‘having the right boss’ and how an organisation-wide commitment to diversity & inclusion helps all women, not just the lucky few.

Learn about Boyden's campaign to #DisruptTheNorm

A full copy of Boyden’s diversity study research into Furthering Female Leadership can be downloaded here.

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