Banish stuffy management structures and women will get ahead

Just 21% of senior management roles and 9% of CEO positions are currently held by women across the globe, so it's an understatement to say that women are underrepresented in leadership roles. Policy-makers have been trying to improve these figures for years, with some in Australia proposing we adopt legislation from other countries, such as setting a national quota for women on corporate boards.

Having been confronted with the issue time and time again in my years as an executive coach, I believe the solution is much too complicated to be remedied by regulatory box ticking. Sure, such measures will bring immediate change, but it's unlikely to work well in the long run. It's time to go back to the basics and look at what women really need in order to excel in their careers.

In my view, women need to be free from traditional managerial processes. Outdated and stuffy, these processes still dominate the workplace and are simply at odds with today's women. We need to be free to invest energy in things that truly fulfil us, and this goes far beyond being a good mother or receiving equal pay, it's about having real work-life balance and working the way we want to work.

It is therefore not solely a gender issue as the same can be said for men. However, the problem is more pronounced among women. As in my experience, women are less willing to compromise their personal goals to meet the demands of an organisation.

This means they are less likely to put up with employers who impose rigid working styles upon them, such as stale supervisory methods, which require extended working hours, heavy 'face-time' with colleagues and do not cater to flexible working hours. The steady rise in female entrepreneurialism is testament to our need to be creative and free to work the way we want.

One particular example springs to mind. A recent client of mine came to me because she was experiencing problems at work. She had just been appointed as the HR Director for a large corporation, making her the only woman in the senior leadership team. After several months, she began to feel unhappy and increasingly disengaged. We quickly identified the root of the problem - an overbearing CEO who was passively critical of her working style and reporting methods. He wanted clear oversight of the processes she was implementing in her team, something that required long and drawn out meetings and the development of detailed PowerPoint presentations.

Essentially, she had begun to adapt to his needs and the cultural norms of the organisation. What resulted was an utterly demotivated, disempowered version of her former self. We spent several sessions identifying what she truly needed in order to thrive in the role - the freedom and flexibility to trial her own processes and focus more on achieving the end goal.

She then had to work on communicating those needs to the CEO. After much resistance, she eventually got him to listen and has since begun reintegrating her personality and preferred working style back into her role, with pleasing results – not only in terms of her level of fulfillment, but also in her output at work.

So, what should organisations do to bring their management approach in line with what women need?

Reflect on how to help women simultaneously achieve their career and life goals. Listen to what women are asking for – ask them how they prefer to work and what they feel would see them flourish. This may lead to a review of the current management processes in place and the development of more flexible solutions that are workable for all parties involved.

Irene van der Does Willebois

Irene van der Does Willebois is a keynote speaker, executive coach and author of Leading by Design. She believes we're all capable of creative thinking and works with clients like Vodafone, AMP and Macquarie Bank to provide practical ideas on how businesses can adapt to the opportunities of the 21st Century.

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