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Why don't we have more female finance leaders?

Employers don’t lack the will to invest in creating women leaders, but many initiatives do not address the process of how individuals come to see themselves as leaders, argues executive coach Geraldine Gallacher.

July 2019

Dame Helena Morrissey, founder of the 30% club, rightly says: “As more women join boards and demonstrate the value they add, the system will become self-perpetuating.” But the challenge for employers is getting women into leadership positions in the first place.

Employers don’t lack the will to invest in creating women leaders. The 160 employers signed up to the Women in Finance charter are investing heavily in leadership development initiatives for women. Yet many feel frustrated that progress is small steps and slow. 

The problem with many of these initiatives is that they don’t address the process of how individuals come to see themselves as a leader. This involves much more than acquiring the “right” skills and competencies. It requires the individuals to construct a new identity for themselves, and this process happens in a social context.

The process begins as a person starts to see themselves as a leader but for the new identity to stick, they need those they work with to recognise and affirm it. An identity under construction can be fragile. If others don’t accept it, you’ll most likely revert to your old identity where you are recognised as competent at your job but not a leader. 

Women must establish credibility in a culture that unconsciously equates leadership with behaviours more commonly associated with men. Young women don’t look or behave like the current generation of senior executives and the human tendency to gravitate to people like ourselves leads powerful men to sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise. 

These subtle gender biases interfere with the process of women coming to see themselves as leaders.

If leadership development initiatives are to succeed in producing more women leaders at a faster rate, they will need to acknowledge and address the process of becoming a leader and the social context in which it happens. Traditional high-potential, mentoring, and leadership education programs are necessary but not sufficient. 

In my next article, we’ll look at some of the actions an employer can take to support women to identify as leaders.

Geraldine Gallacher is founder and MD of the Executive Coaching Consultancy

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