Women in Leadership: why does it matter?

There is increasing recognition across different sectors of our society that gender balance in leadership creates economic growth and can provide society with different perspectives and approaches to management and business issues. Yet companies are still struggling to attract and promote female talent.

During the last decade we have actually seen an improvement in the share of women leaders in Europe, however the percentages of women sitting in executive positions is still not sufficient to reach the desired gender balance. According to European Commission data from 2016, the average number of women sitting on the board of publicly-listed companies in the EU is 23.3%. This figure drops to 7% when looking at women sitting on boards as chairs, and only 5.1% women CEOs (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Change in the share of women CEOs and board chairs, EU-28, October 2011 – April 2016.


Source: European Commission, Database on women and men in decision-making, 2016


There are plenty of studies discussing the barriers and the corresponding actions to breach the gender gap. Yet, one of the most frequent questions we are asked at the WE Health programme is: what is the real impact of gender balanced organisations and what are the implications for society as a whole? What is the business case behind this Call to Action of having more women leaders and women entrepreneurs?

Studies show that women leadership matters both in economic and social terms. Generally, women in top management can have a positive impact on the workplace culture, with consequent spillover effects in matters such as reducing the pay gap between men and women that do the same work, changing workplace policies in ways that benefit both men and women, and attracting a more diverse workforce.

Moreover, a McKinsey study on female leadership discusses that the presence of more female leaders can positively influence corporate financial and organisational performance. Gender diversity in top management generally results in a competitive advantage for organisations due to the incorporation of new leadership behaviors, which could ultimately improve their performance.  Leadership behavior types such as people development, expectations and rewards and Role model, typically more frequent in women, reinforce the working environment and values of a company, the accountability, the leadership team and ultimately the overall corporate performance .

These findings lead the attention into a recent debate on the need for women in top positions to stay authentic to their inner leadership style. Leading in a more authentic manner relates to the importance of self-awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the core motivations and sense of purpose; with obvious positive effects on final outcomes. On the other hand, some argue that women can only succeed in top management positions if they adapt their leadership styles to a male-dominated environment. Finally, others dispute that, even when female leaders successfully adopt masculine leadership competencies, they have to deal with the gender stereotype of the ‘Think manager – Think man’ phenomenon still deeply rooted in our society .  As a consequence, even women with outstanding leadership qualifications are considered to be less competent leaders because, by tradition, leadership roles are associated with masculine leadership attributes.

The complexity of the issue is proven by the many contrasting viewpoints. We believe there is no given formula for female leaders to be successful and break the ‘glass ceiling’. Each woman, given her unique professional career pathway, has her own solution to the dilemma. Still, we do believe that a public debate is necessary and the exchange of experiences can foster inspiration and role models to other women.

Taking time for reflection can raise awareness of one’s self and one’s purpose. Training such as the WE Health – Empowering Women Leadership in Health Innovation are good initiatives for women in executive roles in the health sector to reflect on their roles as leaders, especially if they are at critical inflection points in their career. This training will help them to decide how they want to shape their leadership style in the future and to answer questions such as: How can I drive value for the organisation and the people using my unique capabilities?  What is the greatest impact I want to have in my professional career?


Brands, R. (2015), “Think manager- think man’ stops us seeing women as leaders”, The Guardian, available at: www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2015/jul/15/think-manager-think manwomen-leaders-biase-workplace (accessed 19 June 2018).

Cunningham, E. (2015), “14 New York women spill their tips for career domination”, Refinery29, available at: https://www.refinery29.com/male-dominated-industries-career-advice  (accessed 19 June 2018).

Esser, A.,  Kahrens, M., Mouzughi, Y., Eomois, E. (2018). A female leadership competency framework from the perspective of male leaders” Gender in Management: An International Journal.

McKinsey. (2008). Female Leadership, a competitive edge for the future.