(March 8, 2021, Beijing, China) On International Women’s Day, CKGSB hosted a special-edition webinar of the Women in Leadership Forum on “Fostering Gender Equality in Leadership Roles”. Broadcasted in partnership with Asia House, the webinar convened 5 global opinion leaders—from four cultures and three time zones—to shed light on empowering women in decision-making roles. On the webinar, CKGSB Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Associate Dean Zhang Xiaomeng revealed the latest research findings on gender traits in leadership and the impact of the pandemic on genders in China. She also led a dialogue with HR and business leaders representing two Fortune 500 companies and a women’s consultancy to explore whether gender should play a role in leadership, the impact of the pandemic on gender equality, and how different cultures and organizations are advancing women.
Study Finds Women More Resilient than Men
On the webinar, Professor Zhang revealed the latest findings of her research, uncovering that Chinese female executives have shown higher levels of psychological resilience during the pandemic compared to their male counterparts. At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, Professor Zhang undertook what turned out to be a year-long research project looking at the psychological resilience among top business leaders by surveying 8,800 Chinese executives on their level of anxiety and depression.
The results reflect her wider findings on leadership traits, which Professor Zhang coined “H.E.R. Leadership.” The study, based on the characteristics of 4,300 leaders in China, has found that there is a trend of homogeneity in leadership traits between women and men. Yet, female leaders still showed 3 different attributes. Female leaders are more Holistic – comprehensive in balancing relations and tasks; Empathetic – caring for team harmony and interpersonal relationships; and Resilient – more resilient and better at regulating stress. However, Professor Zhang noted that these traits are “gender-label” free and that men as well as women can adopt them in their management style.
Is Gender Equality Under Threat?
Professor Zhang then dived into a discussion on gender equality with four other thought leaders: Shinta Kamdani, owner and CEO of Sintesa Group, a 100-year old Indonesian family business conglomerate; Charise Le, Chief Human Resources Officer and Executive Vice President of Schneider Electric; Fernando Vallina, Chairman of ExxonMobil China; and Su Cheng Harris-Simpson, Founder and CEO of SCHSAsia. They shared their views on where we are with gender equality and whether it is under threat in light of the pandemic.
Women have made consistent gains in education attainment and the workplace in the last 50 years. However, men still outnumber women in high-ranking positions by large margins. Shinta Kamdani explained that “In Indonesia, 47% make up the entry-level labor force; 20% go to middle management and only 5-6% of women end up in CEO positions. Even women who get the opportunity to be promoted feel it’s better to stick to a lower-level position because of the work-life balance.” Kamdani also pointed to the importance of narrowing the wage gap between genders. “Women earn 1/4 less than men in the same positions. Only 6% of companies in Indonesia have active policies to review equal pay,” said Kamdani. “This motivates me as there are things to be done,” she added.
The pandemic, which has been ravaging the world for more than a year, is also threatening to reverse progress made on gender equality over the past decades. “Covid-19 has been the only crisis that has resulted in a higher unemployment rate for women than men in the past 30 years,” revealed Professor Zhang. “At the end of Q2 2020, 28 million women aged 25+ left the labor market. There were 1.7 times more women outside the labor force compared to men.”
Some business leaders are leveraging the current global transformation to change their companies for the better. “Covid-19 has definitely prompted us to take a more transformative approach,” said Kamdani. “We see it as imperative for our company to completely reorganize and revisit our business processes in order to adapt to the market changes brought by the pandemic.”
Charise Le shared how 2020 has also been a transformational time for Schneider Electric. “It has been hard, but it has also been an opportunity to fast track our policies and ambition around our vision for our people and leaders including gender equality,” said Le. “Our assumptions of work, work life and work space have been challenged and there is no going back to the way we used to work. At Schneider Electric, we have implemented a global policy to support a hybrid working model in which our employees have the option to work from home 2 days a week. This flexibility is important for all, but particularly for women, because it is one of the key challenges that women face in seeking to progress their careers while balancing the family and parenting.”
Does Gender Play a Role in Leadership?
When discussing whether male and female leaders have unique leadership traits, all speakers agreed that while we may see some differences, these are due to the environment rather than inherent traits. “Women are more people centered, which is considered more compassionate, while men are seen as controlled and task orientated,” stated Kamdani. “Ultimately, it’s important to note that these differences that we see are not rooted in fixed gender traits, but rather stem from organizational structure and an environment that positions men and women differently and influences them to respond differently.”
Le agreed by saying “I don’t think gender is the determining factor in leadership style. The differences we see are due to the differences in opportunity and lack of representation and underpinned by stereotypes.”
Su Cheng Harris-Simpson encouraged people to “move away from gender definitions of leadership and focus on what differentiates a good leader from a great leader.” She listed qualities like inclusiveness, empathy, people-focus, integrity, transparence and ability to make decisions quickly and communicate them clearly as some of the leadership characteristics that we should all aspire to have.
Fernando Vallina stated that he sees “gender traits and characteristic differences as rapidly fading.” “Today, you have companies that work on a much more democratic style, there is a premium on softer skills, empathy, ability to build relations that motivate your employees and obviously leaders today use these skills more than in the past as companies have evolved,” he said.
Advice for Future Leaders
The speakers shared practical tips, honest advice and company best practices for advancing women in the workforce, particularly in leadership roles.
“Double standards and lack of role models are some of the key challenges for women in the workplace,” explained Vallina. “Call out the double standards,” he advised. “Play the game – build alliances, talk to people before a decision is made to make sure they understand your points, and ensure you gather votes in advance. It’s called being affective and having a strategy.” He also encouraged women to openly communicate their goals. “Make sure you tell the company and your supervisor what your ambitions are and make sure you get a reasonable calibration of what the views of the company are on your capabilities. Ask for people’s perception on your strengths and weaknesses, and then focus on your strengths.”
Le shared Schneider Electric’s best practices in advancing gender equality. “The key factors in nurturing leadership in women are that you really need to believe in gender diversity, have a culture of inclusion and leadership role modeling,” she said. “We want to ensure that diversity and inclusion are integrated at all stages of our employees’ experience and ensure fairness and equity in core people processes and policies. Our overall goal is to establish trust and eliminate bias and to make processes inclusive to all diverse needs.” She revealed Schneider Electric’s goal to have 50% women in all new hires 40% in frontline managers and 30% in executive leadership teams by 2025.
Kamdani encouraged women aspiring to become leaders to not shy away from their goals. “Every day, we have a chance to choose a better story. Leadership can be scary, but we have to understand we are not alone. Don’t feel like being promoted is an obstacle. Don’t be scared to be called too ambitious. The most important thing is that you must love what you’re doing.”
Harris-Simpson urged women to “Go for it!” She explained, “You have nothing to lose. You will never know unless you try. Know your superpower. Share your thoughts and voice your opinion.”
This webinar is a special edition of the Women in Leadership Forum, a flagship event organized by the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. Since 2013, the Forum has become an influential platform aimed at empowering women to become leaders, promoting gender equality in the workplace, sharing success stories and leading positive change. Past speakers have included Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, former British Ambassador to China Barbara Woodward, former Australian Ambassador to China Jan Adams and President of Didi Jean Liu, among many other high-profile speakers from China and around the world.