"Critical Mass in Female Employment Drives Bottom Line"

So what’s holding us back, asks women leadership panel at IESE Munich


Sahil Tesfu

Sahil Tesfu (McKinsey): “Finding a sponsor can help you advance as a woman“ / Photo: Bernhard Schmidt

“The paucity of women in management positions isn’t just an issue for women. It’s something that both men and women need to work on.”

This was the call to action issued by Nuria Chinchilla, professor of managing people in organizations at IESE Business School, at the “Women in Leadership: Closing the Gap” panel discussion at IESE Munich last week. A prelude to the Global Alumni Reunion 2015, the event brought together female IESE alumni, all of them distinguished business leaders, to debate the challenges still facing women in the business arena today.

The discussion was moderated by Alexandra Borchardt, managing editor of the Germany daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and graduate of the Program for Management Development (PMD) class of 2013. Joining her were Professor Chinchilla; IESE MBA graduates Sahil Tesfu (MBA ‘13), engagement manager with McKinsey, and Lucía Camarena (MBA ‘94), B2B digital positions product and go to market management, Telefónica Germany; and Smriti Sinha, head of CEO office, Visa Europe (Exchange program, IESE, LBS MBA ‘10).

The Three “F”s

Borchardt kicked off the debate by asking Chinchilla what light is being shed on the leadership gap by research.

“Many women realize that when they take the next step up the hierarchical ladder, they fear losing any semblance of a personal life,” said Chinchilla. She called for companies to adopt an inclusive approach to what she describes as the three “F”s: female participation, family perspective and flexible working arrangements.

Chinchilla stressed the benefits that diversity of perspective brings to the workplace, and called for greater understanding of the challenges posited by the “work-life balance.”

Research supports this need, she said: “When you have a critical mass of women you start to see real improvement in the bottom line. Furthermore, businesses need to be aware of the direct link between greater flexibility and productivity. This is something that both men and women need to work on – and that affects them both.”

These views were shared by other panel members, who agreed that enhanced flexibility has benefits for everyone working within organizations. “This isn’t just a ‘women topic’,” said Sinha. “Men too should have access to and be encouraged to use more flexible models of working.”

Voting With Their Feet

The “glass ceiling” remains an enormous obstacle for women to crack. And many are voting with their feet.

“Sometimes it’s just easier to move up the ladder by changing jobs,” said Camarena. “With one former employer I realized that my assets weren’t being fully utilized. I knew it was time to change.”

Attrition in the workplace, and the loss of high potential talent, damages companies’ competitiveness, she said. “Without a diversity of perspectives you reduce your chances to break into new business areas. At a management level it’s also important to have a mixture of genders, as this in turn helps to retain talent.” 

Can Quotas Close the Gap?

Government-imposed quotas in business generally “mask the problem,” said Chincilla. “Self-imposed quotas are more effective.” She argued that the role of government should be in providing the legislative, social and economic frameworks to empower women to define and pursue their own careers.

Camarena agreed. “Compliance alone is not enough. Companies need to see what the talent is that they bring in. They need to ask themselves the question ‘Where do women have the higher impact?’ and position their female talent accordingly.”

More Than One Way to Be Successful

Identifying and working with a sponsor within your organization can help women advance towards leadership, said Tesfu, adding that her own career development had been positively impacted by input from a senior colleague.

“The key to making this work well from the sponsor’s position,” she said, “is seeing him-or her – self in the person they’re supporting. This happens more easily when it’s gender matched, I think – women sponsoring other women.”

Sinha did not agree: “Inspiration can be found everywhere, irrespective of gender and age,” she said.  “Some of the key role models in my career were my peers at IESE, both male and female.” A key learning during her MBA exchange at IESE, she said, was that there are “several ways to be successful.”

MBA – An Essential Tool for Developing Leaders

The session was introduced by Franz Heukamp, professor of managerial decision sciences and associate dean of the IESE MBA.

An MBA can be an excellent tool in developing leaders, both male and female,” he said. “And female enrolment is increasing in the MBA program.”

“One of the main problems we look to overcome is that there are fewer women applying to do an MBA in the first place. At IESE we look to combat this through initiatives like the Empowering Women Leaders project, and in ensuring that students encounter female professors in the course of their studies. It’s also incumbent on top schools like IESE to work with companies to help them find next-generation female leaders among our students and graduates.”