A recent World Economic Forum study shows that C-suite executives are kept awake at night by large-scale global problems such as corruption, geo-political security and energy price instability which increasingly impact their business.
These problems go well beyond the ‘tame’ challenges that traditional business models and command-and-control leadership styles can address.
A growing body of research shows that women excel in precisely the traits necessary to address these 21st century problems – collaboration, empathy and team-building combined with more vigorous approaches such as taking initiative and driving for results.
"Women have the potential to be truly transformational, value-driven, value-adding executives who can change their organisations from within and find new solutions to our toughest challenges," says Gayle Peterson, co-director of a new Oxford programme designed specifically for women leaders.
Women Transforming Leadership, co-directed by Gayle Peterson and Kathryn Bishop, Associate Fellows of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, was developed both in response to organisations’ need to prepare women for leadership roles more effectively and the need of women themselves to find strategies to fulfil their leadership potential.
The continuing low numbers of women in leadership positions globally indicates that companies and individuals have still not found a way to tap into their valuable skills.
"Women leaders around the world continue to face significant structural barriers that limit their potential. Advice to women to 'think their way through' is just not enough. Companies that wish to develop solutions to complex, global problems should focus on developing leaders with a broader range of styles, who can think and act differently from traditional models," says Gayle Peterson. "And the benefits are clear."
Research shows not only that women possess the skills which organisations increasingly need, but that when they are employed in leadership roles within organisations, they can make a transformational difference to its performance.
"The studies really are stacking up and decision-makers within organisations are starting to notice the evidence that gender-balanced leadership teams perform more effectively," says Petersen.
A McKinsey & Co. report shows for instance that companies with gender-balanced executive committees have a 56% higher operating profit compared to companies with male-only companies.
A study from Catalyst found a 26% difference in return on invested capital between companies with 19-44% women board directors and those no women on their boards.
"These studies do not stand in isolation and I think the case is now being made," says Petersen. "The real question now is what we do about it."
There is no single, simple solution to address the barriers to women’s advancement and opportunity. Change is needed at systemic level involving societies and policy-makers but businesses too have a key role to play.
"If organisations intend to succeed in the long term, in an increasingly complex world, they would be well-advised to examine the cultural and social patterns within their walls which limit women’s opportunity and achievement," says Petersen.
The new programme, Women Transforming Leadership, is designed to develop a network of women leaders from around the world, who can use their skills to step out from the traditional leadership models which are no longer serving the world well.
"We know that women have powerful skills and abilities," adds Petersen, "but to shatter the glass ceilings, they need more than a 'can-do' attitude. Women need access to concrete resources like networks, coaching and mentoring – and to be helped to build specific strategic plans to manage career transitions, and change their organisations from the inside."