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Women's empowerment

How to run a high-performing business: Hire more women leaders 

Published 19 March 2024 in Women's empowerment • 9 min read

Gender stereotyping is the enemy of men who want to run successful, sustainable businesses. It’s also the enemy of women who want to work for successful, inclusive companies with gender diversity at every level – including the bottom line.

The societal attitude towards families since the 60s has relied heavily on the narrative that the “typical” family has a working father and a stay-at-home mother. This has created a mental model where unconscious bias can create barriers to women developing their careers, making it inordinately more challenging for them to reach a board or CEO position.

The position of women with ambition in business is demonstrably tough. In Alexander Fleischmann’s article “Women are bored of waiting: Slow progress on shattering the glass ceiling on company boards”, published here in January, he quoted me as saying: “The historic assumption of a lack of qualified, experienced women is simply not true. The larger issue is that people still simply bring in people like themselves. Women do not lack merit; what they lack is a close enough resemblance to the prevailing masculine perception of what leaders look like. Our survey – and experiences of the women of the Boardroom – therefore smash both the misconception of a lack of qualified women to serve on boards and the prevailing excuse that companies cannot find them. Women are here – and they are ready to lead.”

Men v men and men v women

In the race to the top of the corporate hierarchy, men generally benefit from a level playing field when competing against other men, and the hurdles remain consistent throughout their careers. Conversely, women face a playing field tilted against them and hurdles that increase in height throughout their careers – especially as they approach the c-suite.

According to MSCI World Index data, in their first jobs, there is a 49/51 split of women to men. This drops dramatically to one-third to two-thirds in middle management, 18/82 for executives, and finally, at CEO level, just 6% women to 94% men. And yet the total working population has a gender split of 39 women to 61 men – so something is going wrong. There has been a consistent but gradual improvement since 2019 in the inclusion of women on boards, but its already glacial pace slowed in 2023. The current generation of ambitious women wants to contribute at the highest levels of business, but a step change is required if these women are to see this opportunity through.

As of 2023, women held 10.4% of leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies

The business case is clear: according to one study by BlackRock, the rewards for creating true equity between men and women across the business can generally be a tangible financial advantage of up to 29% outperformance versus peers with the least diversity.

The same study shows companies that promote more women into senior roles have even better financial performance. So, if there is a compelling moral case that makes business sense, why aren’t more women making it to the top?

The glass ceiling meets the glass cliff

The glass cliff refers to the appointment of a woman to the top corporate job in a company suffering poor performance and facing crisis or failure.

Research around why women are chosen for the jobs (selected for appointment) and why they accept these jobs has thrown up some interesting perspectives on root causes, including:

  • Women are more likely to take a high-risk role because offers of top jobs to women are so infrequent they feel compelled to accept them or risk missing the opportunity of a CEO role entirely. 
  • One study showed that women were more likely to be associated with valuable traits when handling a crisis as they are seen as ‘tactful, courteous, and understanding.’ 
  • The classic ‘old boys’ club’ problem is where men in senior positions prefer to hire ‘in-group’ members for “cushy” jobs while appointing women when a job is considered risky. Within this context, women are seen as more expendable and used as scapegoats. 
  • A study by the University of Exeter found that women candidates in the UK were chosen to fight difficult-to-win Parliamentary seats.  
More than one in five people have experienced violence in the form of physical, psychological, or sexual harassment at work. Women are disproportionately affected by workplace sexual violence and harassment, with more than 8 per cent experiencing some form of harassment or violence compared to 5 per cent of men

A significant downside of women being appointed to lead a failing company is that they are often associated with the outcome, which can unfairly damage their professional reputation and, more generally, add to the perception that women cannot succeed in a CEO role. 

There is much work still to be done to establish greater recognition of both the glass cliff and its inherent unhealthy gender dynamics.

The male ‘closed shop’ is opening up

In many cases, and despite reports about men’s bullying and harassment of women at work, the problem is not only about them actively discriminating against or excluding women. In my experience, many men intellectually appreciate the capabilities of women in their organization and, in many cases, appreciate their contribution. However, these same men may consciously or unconsciously want to maintain the informal ‘boys’ club’ at the top of the organization.

I believe that men’s mental models – their unconscious bias – are the most significant barrier to career advancement for women. In a young woman, they may see someone who will one day want to have children and take maternity leave or a career break. They simply won’t see a young male colleague in the same light. How many times have you seen the label ‘working mum,’ and how many times have you seen the equivalent label ‘working dad’?

However, some companies are addressing this discrepancy in attitude and perception.

What can be done? An action plan for future women leaders

Building in flexibility is a major step to leveling the gender playing field. One post-COVID phenomenon that has coincidentally helped create and institutionalize flexible working, which is of great benefit to women, is hybrid and remote working for roles where this is possible. And instead of maternity leave, parental leave for both parents can boost equality at work – and at home. It’s interesting to note, however, that while parental leave is offered to both men and women, women are expected to take time off for childcare, while men often choose not to take their leave entitlement as they don’t want to be absent for fear of missing out (FOMO). This in itself speaks volumes.

Women investing
“Women are here – and they are ready to lead.”

Regardless of the value afforded to an organization by more balanced gender representation, more stringent diversity and inclusion regulations in many countries will force companies to make the journey. This includes requirements for transparent reporting of workforce and leadership diversity (potentially naming and shaming the laggards), all the way to obligatory quotas for women in leadership positions.

Career or carer should not be a ‘zero sum’ decision

From many conversations I have had with members of the Boardroom – for women aspiring to be selected for board positions and those already on boards – it’s women, not men, who are forced to make life-altering decisions to pursue a career. Some examples:

  • Deciding between having a family or going for a promotion.
  • Refusing an international assignment because she is a primary carer.
  • Accompanying her husband on an international assignment at the expense of her own career aspirations.
  • Working apart from her partner to pursue a career and suffering marital or relationship breakdown as a result.
  • In some countries and locations, the cost of real estate and cost of living are so high that both partners must work to make ends meet. This can have a detrimental effect on the woman if the man’s career takes precedence or if they start a family.
  • Women who prioritized their careers over their personal lives when younger now have more time to start a family but feel it is too late. This is an ‘age and stage’ issue that men rarely consider.

Even though some of these decisions may not, in retrospect, have been necessary at the time, women felt they were. And with data showing that women’s participation at a senior level enhances a company’s financial performance, this should prompt employers to find ways to accommodate women’s particular challenges. If it were a supply chain or production opportunity to boost profits, you can be sure a team would be assigned to the opportunity.

Taking action to build diverse boards

If diverse boards are good for culture and enhance financial performance, what can companies do to take advantage of what women leaders can bring to the boardroom table?

In 2023, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden made up four of the five highest ranked countries in the global gender gap index


  • Now and in the future, HR processes should actively include women as today’s successors for executive committee and board members but also nurture the 10–15-year high-potential talent pipeline. Remember to compensate for the fallout rate between a diverse entry-level gender mix and the current imbalance at the top.
  • Address the ‘Career or Carer Zero Sum Game’ challenge: Task a top team reporting to an executive committee or board member to identify company-specific ways of retaining women throughout their careers by reviewing flexible working, parental leave, and expectations on both parents’ travel and foreign assignments.
  • Challenge men in the organization to support and mentor women’s careers and consider developing a bonus metric that rewards management team diversity at a business unit level, thus supporting the early- and mid-stage talent pipeline.
  • As IMD’s research showed in its January study, based on interviewing members of the Boardroom, there are capable, skilled, experienced, and qualified women keen to fill board positions – chairs (often chairmen) of boards and nomination and compensation committees must go looking for these women and ensure the recruitment process is transparent.
  • Investors increasingly want to understand the human capital element of a company’s value proposition or risk management approach, and diversity is part of that agenda. If investors see a financial benefit from a sustainable gender balance, it will necessarily become a board priority and will prompt action on this topic.
  • If the inherent benefits of a gender-diverse workforce and leadership aren’t enough of an incentive, companies in Europe will need to start diversifying the talent pipeline now, as the EU Women on Boards legislation will mandate action to achieve 40% women on boards by July 2026.

Can the Nordics show the way?

A review of the Nordics may point the way for the future inclusion of women in leadership.

As Nordic national culture expects men and women to share working and family responsibilities, it’s not unusual for women in these countries to have careers and men to be primary carers. This is not entirely ascribed to a positive national culture and an enlightened corporate attitude but because there is also regulation on gender balance on boards in these countries. In Denmark, it is a reporting obligation, whereas in Norway, there is a legal requirement that 40% of board members are women – and Norway has more women board members than Denmark.

According to research by Marie Louise Mors, a professor at Copenhagen Business School, companies do look for qualified and competent senior women. “We see it in countries with formal requirements in terms of gender equality on boards; they look outside their personal networks. They approach recruitment companies and collaborate on how to get more women on the lists. In fact, recruitment often becomes more professionalized when there are demands for greater diversity.

“There is a much greater focus on skills. Boards look at which skill sets are already represented in the room and then agree on finding a woman with the required skill set. This leads to a more diverse board – not only in terms of gender but also in skills, experience, and education. This leads to a lift in the board constellation, as it is no longer a homogeneous group,” she said.


Diana Markaki-Bartholdi

Founder & CEO at the Boardroom

Diana Markaki-Bartholdi, CEO at The Boardroom, boasts a distinguished career spanning global board directorships, investment leadership, and impactful ESG initiatives. With extensive expertise in finance and law, she’s led multimillion-dollar ventures and excelled in diverse markets. A Harvard EMBA alumna, she pioneers women’s leadership through The Boardroom, fostering a new era of boardroom diversity and excellence.


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