Women, Power and Leadership: are there changes for the future?

Margarita Mayo. Professor. Instituto de Empresa

21 March 2006

In recent months, women are making headlines as they assume positions of power. Will this exciting change in gender equality clear the way for new models of leadership and facilitate more family-friendly organisations? Or are we reverting to old stereotypes?

Increasingly, women are occupying positions of power. A few examples in recent months of women who have reached the pinnacle are Angela Merkel, as the new head of government in Germany, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the Philippines and Michelle Bachelet in Chile. These examples, although impressive, are only the tip of the iceberg. Below them are many examples of women who hold top-level executive positions in both government and business organisations. Expectations are high about what women in power may mean for the world in the long run.

The growing presence of women in powerful positions suggests that to be a woman is no longer an impediment in the climb up the professional ladder. What's more, it’s considered politically correct for companies to include women on governing bodies, as evinced by the new Unified Code of Recommendations for The Good Governance of Listed Companies presented recently by the National Stock Market Commission. This is a great step forward in gender equality. However, the day this type of event is no longer news will be the day when we can truly say that gender equality exists in the upper echelons of leadership. For the moment, the famous ‘glass ceiling’ that once acted as an invisible barrier to the upward mobility of women is beginning to crack. These women, with their stories of success, are acting as role models for coming generations.

Obviously, gender diversity leads to greater innovative policies on the political scene. But the question is; are these pioneering female leaders also establishing a new style of leadership? The stereotype suggests that women have a more participatory and democratic style of leadership that encourages negotiation. We have created this stereotype, based on our everyday experiences with women who hold positions of influence. However, experts have pointed out that the idea of women having a less assertive style of leadership arises from the fact that historically they have held positions with little power. As a result, women have resorted to less direct tactics of exerting their influence. The truth is, when women have power, they exercise their leadership with confidence and firmness.

Have these changes done anything to improve the situation of women in the workforce?
It is commonly thought that when a woman assumes a position of power, the quality of life of those women working under her will improve. A woman is expected to understand the trials and tribulations of other women and to help them in their professional career growth. In fact, one of the first electoral promises fulfilled by Michelle Bachelet of Chile was an equal-opportunity cabinet made up of 10 men and 10 women. According to a study carried out by our research team at Instituto de Empresa, the presence of women in top-level management can promote flexibility and foment policies for a more family-friendly atmosphere, helping women to reconcile work and family-life. But this can only be achieved when a large number of women in a company work together to become the driving force behind the change.

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