Why gender is a business issue, not a women’s issue

By on March 10, 2014

The theme of International Women’s Day on 8 March this year was ‘inspiring change’. It is an opportunity to reconsider our view of how to achieve success, says Gloria Moss.

At the beginning of March, Carey Smith Steacy, the captain of a WestJet flight, found an offensive note on a passenger seat. “The cockpit of an airline is no place for a woman,” it said. The note expressed the wish that passengers were told if there was a female captain “so I can book another flight”. Is this an isolated problem?

Just a few days later, a magazine article reported executive search companies frequently overlook women for board-level appointments, with lack of gravitas one of the many reasons offered. The fact research shows men are more likely to display gravitas than women, as part of the arsenal of command and control leadership, and that it has little place in superior transformational leadership, is key to understanding the errors at play here.

Searching for leaders with ‘gravitas’ will condemn organisations to old-fashioned leadership rooted in distance, rather than relationship. Leadership of this kind will almost certainly fail to produce the kind of results achievable with more modern, female leadership.

So the theme of International Women’s day 2014, ‘Inspiring change’, is an opportunity to reconsider the capabilities on which business success rests. According to authors Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland, “gender is a business issue not a women’s issue” – so a consideration of questions relating to women opens up wider issues for business.

Women’s Day is a call to action to businesses with predominantly male senior management to re-examine the competencies used in leadership selection. Is the ability to form relationships, inspire teams and create a vision at the heart of leadership selection? If not, then it is time to consider a move from transactional to transformational leadership.

A report by Demos found the UK trails behind other G20 countries in apprenticeships, so the education sector needs to do all it can to boost opportunities. So-called ‘new universities’ are well placed to do this, with a more applied curriculum than is usual at more established institutions.

These educational courses can also change industry demographics. One reason for the shock of the passenger on the Westjet flight is the paucity of female pilots – currently, a tiny three percent of all airline pilots are female. On the pilot courses at Buckinghamshire New University, 14 percent of the students are female. Education can have a major impact changing demographics. They can change perceptions too.

According to Dr Jenny Tilbury, head of department, “Of the class of 2013, the best overall student out of 120 students was female.”

The reason? Senior lecturer George Georgiou says it is hard to generalise but he has noticed during their pilot training in the US that “guys can lose focus as to why they’re there while young women don’t tend to.”

Focus is just what one hopes for from a pilot of the commercial airliner and according to Analysa Welsh, a stewardess for eighteen years with United Airlines, “Female pilots are just as good as the men.” Educational institutions can break the bottlenecks and organisations can follow suit by recognising a broad range of competences. That way, women will see that the sky really is the limit.

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