Monday, July 13, 2009

Business Forum in Oslo

Women leaders and the changing context of business organizations

Are women’s routes up the corporate ladder different from men’s? Do women have an authenticity problem? Are successful women in traditionally male areas generally disliked? What role can women on boards play in advancing women in the organization? These were among the questions discussed at a business forum in Oslo, Norway, entitled “Women Leaders: The Changing Context of Business Organizations.”Ginka Toegel, Professor of Organizational Development and Leadership and Director of the Strategic Leadership program for Women, was the main speaker of the event, attended by more than 50 women and men.

Mrs. Susanne Schneider, Partner at Steenstrup Stordrange and board member, shared personal insights and introduced Professor Toegel:

"We all have opinions about these issues, but they are seldon based on research and facts. It was very inspiring to listen to the findings that Ginka presented. I hope that I am managing the right balance between being agentic and communal, but at least I'm now aware of the concepts."

Today only three percent of the senior leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies are held by women globally. The number is as low as 1.6 percent in European FT companies. At the board level, a diverse and interesting pattern is arising. Thanks to government actions in Scandanavia, women comprise 44% of the boards in Norway, while Holland comes in at 12 percent and Portugal has less than one percent.

Merete Lütken, professional board woman commented: "In 1993 Norwegian corporate boards had 3 % female members. By september 2008 the number had risen to 43% - the highest in any country in the world. This development had not been possible without legislation requiring Norwegian companies to have 40% women on their corporate boards. Now other European countries are following the Norwegian lead.”

What is influencing this reality and what can be done in the future? For this interactive event, Professor Toegel asked the attendees to share their views and experiences with each other in smaller groups.

"The only way we can be successfull in getting more women in senior positions is giving them opportunities to get experience. By creating a culture in a company where learning is valued and it is allowed to make mistakes a company will automatically become successfull and give women the opportunity to develop themselves with the experience they need to be successfull in senior positions," said Annemiek Friebel, Senior advisor learning and development at Aker Solutions.

It is tough for women,” Professor Toegel explained. “Often times women find themselves in situations where they are in a minority situation (less than 25 %), sometimes even in situations where they are the sole female member of a team. This does not only bring high visibility but also isolation and it is not really until women make up more than 35 percent of a group that they become less salient.

Do women’s routes up the corporate ladder differ from men’s? Interestingly men and women are often selected for different types of assignments. For example, women are far often considered great performers in crisis situations while men are more likely to be associated with growth strategies and risk taking. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Women are like tea bags – you don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.” Though this leadership positioning may look quite attractive, especially in current times, there is also a downside associated with it if women only are called on in times of crisis, but men in times of growth.Another career path differentiator is the reason for why women take time out of their jobs. Women take leaves to take care of children or older parents, men to develop and reposition themselves. This not only leads to less linear career paths but also poses challenges for re-entry into the market place.Maybe one of the more important take-aways from the event, was the importance of finding and working with internal mentors or sponsors. It is an area where women lag behind their male counterparts and they truly need to become better.

“If you do not have an internal mentor today ladies, think of getting one,” Professor Toegel advised.Are women and men becoming more similar or different? Apparently, research shows that the gap between personalities of men and women in the more prosperous and egalitarian societies is widening. “We have to accept that we are different,” one of the participants commented. And what about stereotypes - do males have stronger stereotypes about women’s leadership than women do about men’s leadership? Interestingly, based on the discussions at the Forum, women tend to have a stronger bias about men’s leadership.

To maintain their authenticity, Professor Toegel offered the following suggestion to participants: “Know yourself, accept yourself and if possible even be open about your weaknesses. Talk about your weaknesses with the people that work for you, as there is a definite chance that they otherwise will discuss them without your presence and you thereby will have less control. Also, people hate ideal leaders and by discussing your weaknesses openly you come across as a confident manager.”

Is there an ideal style to aspire to? If women in some way were to find a balance between being agentic and communal then we would be on to something. Balance is the key, as can be seen in PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi, who is known to be a tough negotiator on the one hand and to give fashion advice to her employees on the other.

Merete Lütken shared her thoughts: "There is a clear link between equality and profitability . Companies that reflect the diversity of society- also in top management and board of directors, have a competitive advantage in a complex market. Women influence 80% of the purchase decisions. It is unvise not to reflect such a major consumer group and talent pool in the top management of a company."

"We applaud Norway with it’s pioneering legislation, open culture and independent women. It has made Norway the country everyone is looking to for a solution. With that comes a responsibility and I believe that to continue being at the forefront, assuring successful diversity of boards and organizations, it is urgent that women listen to their own truths, speak with their own voice, and confidently do things different from how things were done in the past," Kristin Engvig, Founder and President W.I.N ( Womens International Networking) continued.

The evening ended with an engaging discussion. Perspective from our panelists Annemiek Friebel, Senior Advisor Learning & Development Aker Solutions, Kristin Engvig, Founder of W.I.N Global Leadership Forum and Merete Lütken, Professional Board woman and Vice Chairman at Polydisplay, was mixed with views from the audience.

Learn about Strategic Leadership for Women

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