The Women Have Arrived

By Mark Sherrington on 2010/02/09

At the end of last year, The Economist wrote about a victory for women in the workplace. More than 50% of the US workforce now are female - signalling an important milestone in the revolution to bring women economic empowerment. Yes, but….only 2% of the bosses in American businesses are women (5% in the UK). The revolution still has some way to go if women are to achieve their rightful share of the leadership roles. Not the case at Quirk eMarketing where 3 talented women were appointed to the board at the same time as the Economist article was published. The Quirk board is now 50% female.  

Does this really matter?

At one level, no. What is important for the board of a company, as for any effective team, is that there is talent and diversity. My experience, first in Unilever, then in my own business, Added Value, was that having women in the leadership team enriched it. If the leaders are only men, however diverse, the ideas and decision making are more limited (the reverse is also true – all female teams in business are not the best either). Moving back into corporate life later with SABMiller reminded me of this. After 14 years at Added Value where half our directors or more were women, I found it incredibly strange to be working on an all male board (1 woman was later appointed). I may be a bit of an alpha male myself, but that does not mean I enjoyed working exclusively with 8 other alpha males.  

I am conscious that I’m now about to indulge in a bit of gross generalisation, but women often possess some important attributes of successful leadership and success in business generally. The ability to find a consensus, to put ego aside and look at issues in a more balanced way, to multi-task and just get on with it. It is no coincidence that women have made the most progress in marketing and advertising, especially in the agencies, where these qualities are very necessary. They are hugely appreciated by the 2 most important stakeholder groups - the people in the agency and its clients. I had the pleasure of working with Shelly Lazarus, head of Ogilvy Worldwide and one of the most powerful women in business in America. I know Renee Silverstone, head of Jupiter’s Drawing Room personally. These 2 women, there are several others, are seriously impressive - not despite their femininity, but because of it. 

I don’t mind defending the alpha male either. Again to generalise somewhat, the alpha male can offer some vision and strength in leadership. It takes strength and vision to listen to what everyone is advising and then choose a path that is less obvious and less popular. It takes strength and a certain ego-driven stubbornness to overcome the setbacks and pursue that vision tenaciously. The truly great male leaders can manage to do this with a degree of humility and the great female leaders can be strong and stubborn when needed. 

And that is my point I guess. Any leadership team needs diversity and this must include women in roughly equal proportion to men. The best leaders possess the best of male and female characteristics whether they happen to be men or women. Welcome to Sophia, Kath and Mary, our first board meeting has already demonstrated the value of having you there.