Women in leadership: is behavioural change key to a boardroom breakthrough?

Something incredible happens when companies don’t leave change up to chance

Rsz Pexels Mikhail Nilov 6592735 2

If the wealth of skills and experience that women can bring to boardrooms wasn’t a compelling enough case for companies to invite them to the top table, the revelation that gender-diverse workplaces outperformed financially by 39% in 2023 might just do it.

No doubt, boards are looking for more balance, with many turning to leadership programmes to establish dynamic pathways for women’s upward mobility. The logic suggests that significant investments of time, financial resources, and genuine commitment from both sides should be sufficient to dissolve the ‘manager-equals-male’ default. So why isn’t it? 

Despite businesses’ best intentions, the last five years have seen underwhelming progress for gender equality in leadership. McKinsey reports that since 2018, the representation of women in C-level roles has risen by a meek 6%. Where race and sex intersect, this figure dwindles further. 

Elke Edwards, founder of  leadership development company Ivy House, argues that traditional “tick box” development programmes are a losing proposition. This is particularly true for organisations looking to target underrepresented groups among whom limiting self-beliefs and social conditioning remain a significant stumbling block. The results that can be gleaned from a catch-all approach can quickly move from elusive to illusory. 

“If we’re talking about creating visibility for women, both men and women need to be involved,” Edwards explains. While men at the top of the ladder can and should take accountability for supporting their female colleagues, women must work to address the internalised insecurities that make the rungs harder to climb. The notion that prejudices against female leaders are exclusively held by men doesn’t bear up under scrutiny. 

Last year’s findings from the Reykjavík Index for Leadership found that while 82% of men in the G7 lack confidence in female leaders, 76% of women are also apprehensive about their suitability for positions of power. 

“Before we can make progress, first, we have to peel back the layers of the onion and look at the root beliefs that are actually driving our behaviour. Most training doesn’t touch the sides,” Edwards says, noting that the majority of women she works with will put off applying for roles until they meet every requirement on the job listing (a trait she rarely sees in their male counterparts).

Most leadership programmes do female staff a disservice on two counts. The first is that spaces on leadership development programmes are typically reserved for those already in leadership roles or those the organisation deems ‘high-potential individuals’. Often, this pool is disproportionately made up of men.

This oversight means women, and especially women of colour, may be barred from valuable sessions by unequal opportunities before they even begin. Getting the right people in the door is a minimum requirement for businesses that are serious about inclusion.

Second, Edwards explains that most companies will start by asking: ‘What skills do we want in these people?’ while overlooking the personal beliefs and thinking that would allow employees to develop those skills. “It’s like building a house,” she explains. “Each brick resembles a quality. They say: ‘We want strategic thinking; we want resilience, team effectiveness and innovation’. We build this house, brick by brick and then stand back, and say: Oh, what a beautiful house! The problem is, if we only focus on the skills without addressing the thinking and belief systems that underpin them, our house will fall down.”

Although employees may buy into the initial buzz of the programme, the prioritisation of traditionally masculine traits, such as assertiveness, control and corrective action, over collaboration, compassion and listening, can send a strong message: women should behave more like men - or else leadership isn’t for them. 

What’s more, the effects will quickly wear off if women’s contributions aren’t acknowledged and they are not empowered to become the kind of leaders they were born to be. “Six or 12 months down the line, the exec teams that invested in the programme will look around their organisation and wonder what’s really changed. And that’s because they built the house before laying the foundations for behavioural change,” says Edwards.

There are deeply pragmatic skills that any manager, leader or director will need to hone, regardless of the gender stereotypes they fall under. But the important part—self-leadership, or the drive to apply these skills— tends to be overlooked in the structuring of such programmes. 

The “golden nugget”, as Edwards calls it, is that behavioural change can only be sustained if it’s chosen day in, day out. “Without ownership, without self-leadership, none of this is going to happen,” she says. 

We have to approach all of this with kindness. Nobody set this system up on purpose

Naturally, getting to the bottom of the belief systems that guide decision-making is complex. External biases and the systems that are designed to perpetuate the status quo have been built up over generations. Businesses must take a proactive stance to adequately address challenges that specifically or disproportionately impact women. 

Considerations span from maternity leave and flexible working arrangements to pay gaps and harassment. Establishing an environment that acknowledges and accommodates these needs and barriers will give women the space to tackle internal biases without undue pressure.

“We have to approach all of this with kindness,” Edwards adds. “Nobody set this system up on purpose. We’re all in this together and we could create change at speed if we work collectively at a much deeper level.”

When asked if businesses should run their leadership development programmes in mixed or single-sex cohorts, Edwards stresses that both have their merits. Depending on the organisation’s culture, bringing women together on their own can be an “incredibly energising” way to kickstart an empowering narrative - but that energy must be funnelled back into the business to reach men. At the same time, mixed cohorts drive debate and understanding on both sides. This has the added benefit of empowering male advocacy. 

Regardless of the group companies want to target with leadership training, getting the right people in the room is key. Ivy House strongly advocates for individuals to apply to take part in their programmes. This initial commitment of time and effort on the part of the employee ensures they enter the programme with the right mindset, ultimately creating longer-lasting impact for the organisation.

Edwards concludes that welcoming “changemakers” into one room, whether male or female, can work wonders to “light bonfires”,  ignite excitement and create a catalyst for behavioural and organisational change.

For leadership and talent development programmes done differently, visit ivyhouse.co.uk