Historically, many sectors of the workforce, such as politics, business, and trades, have been influenced and lead by male leaders. Gender equality is a human right, but our world has faced a persistent gap in access to opportunities and decision-making power for women. While this is slowly changing in the call for inclusion and diversity, it is fair to acknowledge significant growth among the acceptance and encouragement of female leaders. Women in Government are underestimated in most, if not all countries worldwide. However again, more and more women are pursuing leadership positions today. We are seeing increased numbers of women participating in historically male-dominated fields, such as working for crane hire companies, and therefore this has influenced the traditional way of thinking in a positive light. The days where women were expected to be a receptionist, an interior stylist or designer, or a hairdresser are long gone. This does not mean that women do not still face hardship in male-dominated roles or industries.
Some factors that are said to hinder a woman’s political leadership, or any leadership opportunity for that matter, include the level of sexism present in society. These ideas to have shaped uninformed opinions for too long. This is particularly common amongst the older generations and their lack of optimism about women holding some form of power. Women are now moving into paid employment, in ways that their grandmothers or even mothers could only dream of. Occupations within the commercial interior design or the human resources sector are just a few examples of new female-dominated domains within the workforce. In the 21st century, there is less discrimination, with fields traditionally known to be ‘male-dominated industries’ seeing more women involved; (Construction (12.1%), mining (17.7%), utilities (24.5%).
As the positive movement for gender equality in the workplace gains momentum, there are many opportunities women are taking advantage of as leaders. About 35% of the world’s countries have had women leaders, meaning more than 70 nations worldwide have seen a woman lead their government. The achievement of these women is remarkable. These were important milestones in the shift to push gender equality and gave women hope for change. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the first elected prime minister of Sri Lanka and the modern world. In 1960, she entered politics after her husband was assassinated the previous year by a Buddhist monk while serving as prime minister. In the wake of his death, Bandaranaike took over leading the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. She was head of state from 1960-65 and again from 1970-77. Very importantly, her social work focused on improving the lives of women and girls in rural areas of Sri Lanka and in 1975 she created the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs.
Divorced, single mother, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir won the election as Iceland’s and Europe’s, first female leader in 1980. She was the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as president. Her motto outlined she would ‘never let the women down’ and worked specifically to promote education for girls. She became a role model for young women around the world.
Liberia, the African nation founded by freed U.S slaves in the 19th century, saw Ellen Johnson Sirleaf launch her career in public service. She was living in exile in Kenya and the US during Liberia’s long civil war. She worked in the banking industry and at the United Nations. Sirleaf beat out a slate of male candidates in Liberia’s first presidential election since the war ended. Winning support from nearly 80% of women voters, she then became Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state. She upheld over 12 years in power, helping preserve peace, build up Liberia’s economy, and earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work on women’s rights.
The power of women in leadership has been reflected through decades of research. Such research demonstrates that when women hold leadership positions, corporate financial performance improves. In 2015, McKinsey & Company found that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to generate returns that exceed their averages for respective industries. Catalyst added to these findings, further supporting that having women involved and on the board of directors at a company translated to on average 16% higher returns on sales and 26% higher returns in capital invested. The current state of women in leadership roles is reflected through the statistic that 60% of junior positions are occupied by women. Based on this figure, women have been sorely underrepresented as you move up in the corporate hierarchy. Through awareness and the influence of technological and economic evolution, the influx of women into organisations continues.
Leadership development programs and mentoring, as well as female role models, are all encouraging younger women. This is fantastic given the skills many women bring to the work environment. As well as the ability to build strong relationships across all levels, women are strong influences for communicating directly, in contrast to up-and-down a chain of command. Preference leading from the centre, rather than the top in a hierarchical manner, allows new and diverse perspectives.
Having the opportunity for a political voice is critical given that this is where laws and policies which affect the whole population, both male and female, are made. Dame Helena Kennedy noted in her speech on International Women’s Day: ‘You don’t have to believe in patriarchy to realise that the law was made by men and is dominated by men, and the same goes for parliament. This means that in all the making of the law, women are largely absent. It is not surprising that the law doesn’t work for women”.
Today, women who are in powerful positions often still face daily occurrences of sexist behaviour, which in many countries is outlawed in the workplace. Indeed, there is still more progress to be made in terms of gender equality. It is, however, both liberating and empowering to see the evolution of females in leadership positions. Millennials are said to be the most educated group of women in history, and with so many different online leadership courses, the opportunity continues to grow. This generation are wanting to make a difference in the corporate landscape whereby eventually, things can become an even playing field. So whether you want to be a CEO, operate cranes, or become the next President or Prime Minister, with hard work anything is possible.