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New Research Reveals How to Overcome Gender Barriers in Leadership and Unlock the Power of Diversity

CCL APAC Releases New Report, Overcoming Barriers to Women's Leadership

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)® released a new whitepaper, Overcoming Barriers to Women’s Leadership and Unlocking the Power of Diversity, in line with International Women’s Day. Based on over 300 interviews in Asia-Pacific, the white paper reviews the current range of challenges faced by women in the workplace and how organizations can fast-track progress as they seek to address equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) more broadly. The white paper was published in partnership with IRC Global Executive Search Partners and supported by Schindler and Pymetrics.

Studies have consistently proved that female leaders benefit business, yet the number of women leaders is still drastically lagging.

“Despite all the organizational benefits of boosting the presence and power of women, and the increased discussions surrounding the inequalities women face in the workplace, women still encounter roadblocks in getting to executive leadership positions,” said Sophia Zhao, Senior Research Faculty, Asia-Pacific at CCL. “Deliberate effort is still needed to build awareness and support women’s development.”

Roadblocks to Leadership Success – Push & Pull Factors

There are 2 types of factors that hinder women’s leadership success:

  1. Pull factors: Internally driven limitations women place on themselves, pulling them away from leadership roles; and
  2. Push factors: Externally driven limitations placed on women by others in the network, their organizations, society, or culture.

With both forces combined, women receive far fewer developmental opportunities than men, such as more challenging assignments.

“Compared to men, women are more likely to harbor self-limiting thoughts, or avoid asking for what they want just because they are unsure of the repercussions from negotiations,” said Raj Kumar Paramanathan, IRC Global Executive Search Partners. “Women are also more attuned to a social penalty of negotiating, in being considered demanding or difficult.”

Meanwhile, men and women agree on the top 3 most important career-progressing opportunities – leadership development trainingpromotion, and salary increase – and request them a similar amount, yet women received fewer of them. Notably, men asked for promotions less often and received them more.

Gender role expectations are strong drivers – 70% of women and 48% of men agreed that society expects women to behave in ways that create roadblocks to women’s leadership success. These expectations are particularly strong around family responsibilities, and especially in Asia. The common perception is that if something happens at home the woman must take off work, while men must focus on their career. The bias affects both men and women.

Perception of Gender Barriers

From the start, the study reveals a huge gap between how men and women perceive the issues. When asked about opportunities for men and women in the workplace, they were considered equal by 59% of the men respondents compared with only 37% of the women – a 22 percentage point gap. Only 44% of men surveyed agreed there is a pay gap, compared with 72% of women – a 28 percentage point gap. These gaps contribute to women’s lack of support, systemic challenges, and a sense of powerlessness.

For both men and women, it was found that perceptions can change through experiences. Interviewees identified 5 experience types that trigger people’s awareness of their assumptions, unconscious bias, and the impact.

  1. Being a minority: Men and women shared that their own minority identities (culture, religion, race, ethnicity, etc.) helped them recognize the experience of women and see the importance of prioritizing EDI.
  2. Inspired by respected leaders: One male leader said his commitment to diversity was deeply influenced by the senior leaders who are “extremely people-oriented, extremely aware of the environment, especially sensitive to people as a whole, attentive listeners, attentive team leaders, and extremely scrupulous at choosing their team members.”
  3. Working with other social groups: Many interviewees shared that their experience working across countries, and/or with people with diverse backgrounds broadened their understanding of “others” and changed their views.
  4. Witnessing the organizational benefits of diversity: The positive impact of a concerted, organizational effort to support, develop, and promote women is the experience that opens minds and shifts perceptions.
  5. Becoming a parent: Research shows that CEOs with daughters are more likely to hire new female directors, and that male chief executives with daughters are more likely to champion gender diversity. The “daughter effect” applies to both male and female leaders.

Moving Forward: Organizations Hold the Key

Aligning awareness and education with targeted action by women, men, and organizations can change established patterns that contribute to gender barriers in leadership.

“Fortunately, more and more leaders are re-examining company policies for inherent biases and are deliberately adopting new practices to better leverage the multiple strengths and full potential of female professionals,” said Elisa Mallis, Managing Director and Vice President, Asia-Pacific at CCL. “When organizations fully see, appreciate, and engage all their talent, they gain critical insight, perspective, and knowledge that would otherwise be missed.”

Learning organizational best practices from respondents, the report identifies 4 critical elements to establishing a robust diversity effort that can be even broader than just gender diversity.

  1. Culture: Inclusion. The culture is the foundation for creating an equitable, diverse, and inclusive organization. In an inclusive culture, employees feel that they’re respected and valued and that their voices are heard. An inclusive culture boosts employees’ psychological safety, which is critical for team performance.
  2. Mechanisms: top-down and bottom-up. Both are important to ensure a sustainable and organization-wide culture of EDI. Many organizations’ EDI initiative starts from minority groups’ voluntary initiatives: they form networks, share experience, exchange ideas, and provide support. Top-down mechanisms – such as executive-level support, appointing a Chief Diversity Officer, and representation among regional or functional groups – send a strong signal to all employees that the organization and senior leaders value diversity.
  3. Pillars: Strategy, policy, and training. They support and sustain the EDI culture, and all require thoughtful “discovery” to identify what’s most important within the organization. Strategy sets the direction; Policy ensures alignment; Training evokes commitment.
  4. Stakeholders: Senior Leaders, HR & EDI Leaders, Business Leaders, and All Employees. There are 4 key stakeholders responsible for building and sustaining diversity and inclusion: Senior leaders, critical advocates, and champions; HR and EDI, the catalysts responsible for executing the EDI strategy; Business leaders, critical in the recruiting-assessing-rewarding-promoting cycle; All employees, responsible for their own development and career path.

Everyone needs to gain awareness of their own biases and assumptions that lead to gender barriers in leadership and become informed and open to the challenges, perspectives, and needs of others.

Research Methodology

A total of 319 women and men living and working in the Asia Pacific region were surveyed as part of the study. 62% of the total survey respondents were women. More than half of the participants were mid-to-senior level managers. Quantitative data was supplemented by 46 semi-structured interviews of people residing in the Asia Pacific region.

About the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)

CCL is a top-ranked, global provider of leadership development. Learn more about CCL.

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