By Roger Trapp

On the face of it, 2020 looked like a year when women in leadership positions made progress. Not only was it well noted that countries with female heads of state — including Taiwan and New Zealand — were among those that seemed to cope best with the coronavirus pandemic. But in the U.S. Kamala Harris was last month elected the first female vice-president, while former chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen has just been nominated as Treasury Secretary.

But, as is frequently the case, closer examination tells a different story. Egon Zehnder, the leading global leadership advisory firm, earlier this month unveiled its 2020 Global Board Diversity Tracker Findings. They highlight that, while there is progress in gender diversity globally, the rate of change is insignificant. Despite increased attention to diversity and inclusion real progress remains elusive.

There was at least one woman on the board of 99% of organizations surveyed, with 61.2% of companies reporting at least three women board members — a 16.3% increase compared with 2018. However, 25 countries, including China, Brazil, Germany, and the U.S., are still home to large companies with no women on the boards. The U.K. significantly exceeds this, with 100% of all large company boards including at least one woman on their teams. 

This is clearly indicative of the need for further progress. Egon Zehnder believes that properly unlocking the power of diverse thinking (the business advantage of appointing women and other overlooked employees) requires “three under-represented voices in a boardroom to change internal dynamics.” The study — which this year for the first time also looks at race, ethnicity and LGBTQ+ diversity — finds that 18 countries, up from 13 in 2018, average three or more women on the boards of their largest companies. In the U.K., more than 80% of organizations report having at least three women on their boards, up 16.6% since 2018.

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The firm also argues that positive change requires that, once on boards, women and others from under-represented groups serve as leaders rather than merely participants. Putting women in these positions has a multiplier effect, since they are able to use their leadership to boost diversity through their own personal networks and by their relative power to help diverse candidates succeed once on the board.

This is a point made by Allison Nolan, founder and managing director of Athena International Management Limited, which provides experienced independent directors to funds, and author of the upcoming book, Madam Chair. “We need to make sure we are maintaining and expanding the opportunities for women going forward,” Nolan says. “We can’t let the role of women in leadership, in finance and on boards, slip down the priority list.

Concerned that gender equality might fall by the wayside as governments and companies seek to deal with the effects of the virus, she says that Yellen’s nomination is “a proud moment” for women working in the financial and economic sectors. She adds that women leaders in her industry have inspired trust and shown steadiness in these challenging times and claims that hedge funds managed by women outperformed those run by men during the first four months of the year. “While some industries such as finance lack progress in fixing gender imbalance, women have proven to be exceptional in leadership roles,” Nolan says. “Female managers often have a better approach to managing risk.”

But she concedes that it is still true that in many industries it is harder for women than for men to be promoted to a top position. Pointing out that persistence and a passion to excel at the highest level are as vital as abilities and skills, she offers five key tips for success.

  1. Plan the next career move. Men tend to have a very specific vision for the progression of their careers, whereas women, Nolan says, “often don’t plan well in advance about what role to take on next.” This lack of clarity or indecisiveness can hold women back on the career track. “Be clear to the company about what you’re striving for,” she adds.
  2. Build confidence. “What many women do is hope that their talents, experience, and recommendations will shine through and be rewarded with a higher position,” Nolan says. “But part of the problem has been they have not consistently been recognized and rewarded, so their confidence has flagged. Confidence means standing up for your achievements, owning what you don’t know, and having the courage to ask questions and the courage to fail. Failing is simply a step on the path to success. Be conscious of what you want to change and grow into that better version of yourself.”
  3. Embrace technology. One reason the financial industry is changing quickly is because of digital transformation. “It’s much easier to be nimble,” Nolan says. “With everything online, it’s opening up opportunities for women to take on different kinds of roles, one reason being that women are very good at juggling multiple tasks and picking up new things quickly. These abilities can help them become the translators between the old ways and the online ways of doing business.”
  4. Expand your network. “If you build relationships with colleagues in other divisions, it’ll give you a support network you can turn to for career advice,” Nolan says. “It also helps you do your job better, because you are better connected to the wider business.”
  5. Have a mentor. “This is invaluable,” Nolan says. “A mentor can give you the perspective of the big picture, keep your eye on the goal, and help develop the skill of dealing with people, which is such a key aspect of any executive leadership position.”
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 Much of this will sound familiar. But it is Nolan’s final words that might ring truest. “Don’t strive for perfection,” she says. “Strive to be prepared, to keep progressing and to be you.”


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