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Women in leadership: How to cultivate women’s power in business

Today, just 8% of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO. Nurturing women’s careers is not only the fair and moral thing to do, argues IESE professor Nuria Chinchilla, it is vital for businesses looking to survive in the global, female-led marketplace.

Cultivate the empowerment of women’s leadership

Decades of analysis reveal that certain steps can be taken to bring more women in, harness potential more effectively, and empower women to achieve their full leadership potential.

Here are Chinchilla’s research-based suggestions for developing women in your company:

1. Acknowledge bias and stereotypes

You might think you treat men and women the same, but chances are you’re not fully aware of your own biases.

Senior executives and managers in particular should examine their own inherent prejudices – we all have them – and identify strategies to combat them.

A key part of this is performance evaluation.

Chinchilla’s research shows that men’s reviews are four times more likely to involve discussion around leadership attributes than women’s. Men also receive four times as much developmental feedback and twice as much positive feedback as women do.

Chinchilla also points to the so-called “stereo threat:” a behavior that sees people underperform through fear of being stereotyped. Being mindful of these and other threats, says Chinchilla, can help drive empathy and inclusion in organizations.

She urges leaders to build a culture of openness in which female employees feel empowered to talk about sources of anxiety.

2. Overcome structural hurdles: tips for success

  • Quantify how much female talent is moving up the ladder. Many women, Chinchilla says, are trapped in “the frozen middle,” where their leadership potential is not released.
  • Guarantee gender balance in the hiring process with clearly defined targets based on your company’s current needs.
  • Make sure performance standards and evaluation criteria are clear and consistent for everyone.
  • Conduct regular payroll audits to detect any gender-based salary imbalances.
  • And get more women on your board. Boards of directors remain massively skewed towards men, with only 33.9 percent female representation. Research shows that the more women there are on the board of a corporation, the smaller its pay gap.

3. Being proactive

  • Create programs to identify, develop, and promote high-potential female employees.
  • Get rid of the rigid “corporate ladder” in favor of a more flexible “corporate lattice,” which allows for multiple paths that adapt to individuals and the changing needs of your firm.
  • Facilitate work-life balance, not only by offering flextime, telecommuting, and the option of a part-time schedule, but also by making sure employees feel safe to take advantage of these policies.
  • Confirm that women are being mentored in a targeted way, according to their skills.
  • Openly encourage women to break through the “glass ceiling” (put in place by male-dominated structures that stem from the “old boy network”), and also the “cement ceiling” that women impose on themselves. This happens when women downplay their achievements and don’t go after opportunities until they feel 100 percent qualified to do so. Personal coaching sessions are one way to help women out of this “humility trap.”
  • Let everyone know how serious you are about elevating women. Changes should be spearheaded by the C-suite and framed as a strategic opportunity rather than an ad hoc HR initiative.

4. Get informed and reap the benefits

When companies empower women, they are simultaneously promoting values such as empathy, flexibility and team unity.

And in so doing, they help drive their bottom line: “A diverse culture that mirrors its markets tends to do better than homogenous competitors,” says Chinchilla.

Discover the 13 questions to find out if you are a good leader.


Chinchilla and other IESE professors are highly committed to studying and promoting diversity, and teaching leaders how to achieve it via IESE’s suite of executive education programs around the world.

One of the initiatives to spread this idea and promote training is the focused program on “Women on Boards of Directors” or the “Women and Leadership” program. Here you have all the information about training programs, initiatives and conferences for women in leadership.

IESE has developed a wide range of courses and activities through the Women Win platform to support women in their personal and professional development and aspirations to lead.

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