Ditching leadership clichés

Over the course of a year, ten companies searched for ways to elevate more women into leadership positions.

Ville Blåfield, 22.07.2016

As it turns out, there’s plenty of work to be done in changing attitudes among the companies and women themselves.

51 per cent of women are interested in top management and 72 per cent in middle management positions at their workplaces, with 72 per cent of women believing they have what it takes to be a leader.

Despite the figures, the share of women in management teams of Finnish companies continues to be a low of 20 per cent, while only 10 per cent of business directors are women.

Last year, the Dialogi program sought to identify stumbling blocks that continue to prevent women from rising up the ladder. The joint program of Helsinki-based communications agency Ellun Kanat and Aalto EE brought together ten companies representing different sectors, with a shared aim of increasing diversity in their corporate cultures and management.

Women seem to be able to achieve the criteria for advancing in their careers, but a manly corporate culture makes them give up.”

“The World Economic Forum estimates that at the current rate, equality among women and men in the workplace will not be achieved until 2095. The companies participating in the Dialogi program took the stand that this wasn’t good enough, wanting to speed things up a bit,” states Sari Tomperi, coordinator of the program.

During the one-year program, Accenture, Elisa, Fujitsu, F-Secure, Ilmarinen, Lidl, RAY, Skanska, UPM and Wärtsilä discovered there was plenty of work to do in shaping their corporate culture and employee attitudes.

“A double standard still prevails, which suggests that a nice woman can’t be competent enough, while a competent woman can’t be nice enough. The enthusiasm of women is quenched by a manly culture. Women seem to be able to achieve the criteria for advancing in their careers, but a manly corporate culture makes them give up,” assesses Maria Vesanen, the program’s second coordinator.

The program demonstrated that women would value more encouraging examples – other women, who had advanced in their careers.

“The mentality has been one of leaders who have made it up the ladder being unwilling to talk about female leadership. On the whole, it would be beneficial if women who have made it to the top would boldly show the way. That’s how the concept of leadership expands,” says Vesanen.

Broadening the leadership image is what it’s all about. In his speech at the closing seminar of the program, Professor Alf Rehn mentioned that many myths relating to a masculine leadership image are exactly that - outdated myths.

To get hold of genuinely diverse working life and leadership, we need to let go of our iconic impressions of leaders.”

“Both the gender question and leadership question are ridden with clichés, which is a major problem. If we want to engage in a genuine discussion about the qualities of good leadership with an understanding of diversity, we can’t keep repeating old clichés,” Rehn adds.

“An average leader being a macho geezer is just not true – in fact there is no average leader. Management is already more diverse than we acknowledge. To get hold of genuinely diverse working life and leadership, we need to let go of our iconic impressions of leaders.”

The Dialogi program also involved conducting a study, which was carried out by interviewing 1,437 working-aged women. Responses to the study highlight the same clichés described by Rehn:

“We have certain stereotypes about leaders: extremely determined, firm and direct, male and tall.”

“It’s easier for men to progress, as the person selecting will often think that a tall, middle-aged man equals a good leader.”

Taru Tujunen, CEO of communications agency Ellun Kanat, believes that despite slowly changing percentage figures, a cultural shift is already underway in companies – and the shift is set to pick up pace.

“The next generation will have a rather different view about what’s going on and what needs to be done.”

The Dialogi program encourages companies to adopt a new level of openness, so that also weak spots are addressed openly. Company management needs to commit to change and engage in dialogue.

“The old way is to think that issues can be swept under the carpet, but people in companies and organizations aren’t mute. We already live in a world where everyone has a voice and isn’t afraid to use it,” Tujunen believes.

Under the Dialogi program, Aalto EE offered leadership coaching for participating teams of women in fall 2015, emphasizing the importance of uncovering one’s own potential. The teams were coached by Ben Nothnagel and Riitta Lumme-Tuomala from Aalto EE.

“During the Dialogi program, we achieved many new steps leading towards a more equal and diverse working community,” states Timo Ritakallio, CEO at Ilmarinen Mutual Pension Insurance Company.

“I dare to anticipate that in Finland we’ll be seeing equality at the workplace already in the 2020s, not as late as the 2090s. Considering all the hype around the subject in recent years, it’s pretty evident that the change will take place. It just means that companies need to actively promote the shift.”

“First there needs to be an adequate amount of competent women in middle management, then among top executives, which will lead to competence for board membership.”

In addition to a change in attitudes, also concrete issues may need rectifying.”

Ritakallio emphasizes top management being committed to the process of change.

“Change won’t happen without committed management, especially on the highest level. The example set by management is key to all success.”

Participating in the program, global construction group Skanska provided another interesting example. Skanska represents a highly male-dominated industry, with 86 per cent of staff being men. Skanska’s HR Director Kirsi Mettälä admits that the discourse on promoting diversity in the organization hasn’t always been easy.

“First you need to create an accepting working environment,” Mettälä explains.

In addition to a change in attitudes, also concrete issues may need rectifying. For instance, in a male-dominated industry, working hours may not support career advancement of both parents in a family.

“The construction industry continues to be rather conservative and traditional. On a construction site, work often starts at 7 am and finished at 3.30 pm. Why is that? Who decides that’s how it should be? It’s just the way things have always been. Patterns need to be dismantled gradually and rethought from another perspective.”

The Dialogi program has led to participating companies launching mentoring programs and women’s networks. Also Skanska now has a women’s network – but one that’s also open to men.

“Living in our own separate bubbles is incredibly risky. We have set an example in that women’s network meetings – unlike those of traditional men’s networks – are also open to members of the opposite sex,” clarifies Mettälä.

Putting the change into practice

The Dialogi program identified nine concrete steps for companies interested in advancing women’s careers to take.

  1. Vision and clarifying goals: What concrete, measureable goals do we want to set for the change?
  2. Justifying change – turn the advancement of women into a credible “business case”.
  3. Management visibly committed to change.
  4. Examining facts: Know your numbers, but also pay attention to tacit signals and experiences.
  5. Setting goals. Remember that goals don’t equal quotas.
  6. Rewards. Could a share of compensation be tied to achieving diversity goals?
  7. Culture that supports diversity. The prevailing corporate culture needs to be examined honestly and openly.
  8. Tailored measures: different organizations and employees at different career stages require different types of support.
  9. Don’t give up.

Read this article in Finnish. »

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