GSK dents glass ceiling with female CEO appointment

03 Oct
October 3, 2016

Susy Roberts, 3rd October 2016


GlaxoSmithKline’s appointment of Emma Walmsley as its next CEO, making her the most powerful woman in the FTSE 100, is welcome news indeed. Not least as it debunks the myth that women don’t actually want the top roles. An assumption which forced Kevin Roberts, the Executive Chairman of Satchi and Satchi, to resign last month after he suggested that none of his female colleagues had made it to the top because they lacked ‘vertical ambition’ and instead just had this ‘circular ambition to be happy.’

Yes, women often have many more roles to juggle and taking time out to look after children can sometimes set back their career progress, but with just one in ten mother’s opting to stay at home and more and more couples parenting equally, the time for such sweeping generalisations must surely be at an end?

GSK dents glass ceiling with female CEO appointment

Unfortunately not if some of the comments I hear from both the senior men and women I encounter are anything to go by. Just recently I had to challenge a senior male about his unwillingness to recognise the achievements of his female peers. According to him “they all need to man up”. Even though his female peers are delivering the same ‘substance’, in terms of the same results, he sees them as lacking passion and leadership qualities because they aren’t driving people hard by using the same ‘style’ as him.

It’s this style over substance debate that, in my opinion, continues to plague women at work. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told someone isn’t ‘man enough’ for the job, as though it’s only the more traditionally male leadership qualities that count.

The result is that when a women I know developed a more compassionate leadership style, to better support her people through change, she was some how perceived as being ‘soft’ and ‘not business focused’. Whereas, when another senior male leader did exactly the same thing, he was praised for being ‘adaptive’ and ‘responsive.’

Unfortunately these gender stereotypes are well-ingrained and unlikely to change by themselves anytime soon. The upshot is that if a woman is too assertive she risks coming across as aggressive, not assertive enough and she risks coming across as soft. ‘Soft’ being a word I’ve frustratingly heard used to criticise women in business more than once.

Part of the reason that some women are perceived as being ‘soft’ is due to the amount of time they invest in positively thinking about how their actions and the decisions they’re taking will impact on their people. Although more and more men are starting to think about this, in these challenging times, where everyone is being asked to take on more and more, it’s female leaders who are more likely to notice the negative impact this is having on their people.

Although this is a good thing – not least because research shows that companies who adopt a more caring approach to their workforce suffer less absence, staff turnover and higher engagement and productivity than those that don’t – it’s this very caring approach that puts women at risk of being branded ‘soft’. I therefore advise any women who wants to talk about any people concerns she has to also back up her case using business figures and rational.

As it stands, for a women trying to hold her own in a senior leadership role, overplaying any of her female strengths can potentially impact her. As a former colleague of mine found out when one of her male peers used her softly spoken approach to speak over her in meetings and generally assassinate her character by repeatedly telling everyone she “wasn’t man enough for the job.” She was woman enough for the job, but was never accepted, not least due to banter generated on the golf course finding its way into the boardroom and making her feel incredibly excluded. The result was that when another firm headhunted her on the strength of her results she was only too pleased to move. Her new employer is much more inclusive and she finally feels able to contribute fully. Best of all, no one is allowed to talk over anyone else in meetings and gender diversity is valued.

As to whether or not Emma Walmsley’s appointment as GSK’s will shatter the glass ceiling for others to follow her through, only time will tell. For me the most impressive thing is her ability to remain gender neutral. Even though she’s a mother of four and genuine people person, she hasn’t had to overplay either her male or female traits to get where she is. Instead she says, “I’ve never primarily defined myself by gender. I don’t think of myself as a woman in business, I think of myself as a business person.”

A sentiment that has to be commended – at least until there are so many female business people in the top roles that the appointment of one ceases to be headline news.


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