The ‘ROI’ on Women Leaders

It is widely held that in the post-industrial era, talent is a key resource and competitive advantage available to organizations to deliver superior service and attempt to resolve increasingly complex dynamics. In this context of the ‘war for talent’, women not being leveraged in senior leadership roles is a missed opportunity for organizations intent on achieving business success.

According to research by Dr. Julian Barling, Borden Professor of Leadership in the Queen’s School of Business, only 5% of CEOs in Canada are women. Sadly the numbers are even lower in other developed nations like USA and Australia.

If we chart it broadly, the conversation on women in leadership seems to have come full circle in the past decade or so. It began with rhetoric around the importance of increased access of women to leadership roles. It grew with a clear demand for gender diversity in boards. Finally the conversation came back to understanding the importance of equal opportunity; that harmony can be achieved only in balance. It has now been established that men play an important role in achieving gender diversity and their buy-in and sponsorship is key to women finding a seat at the leaders table.

Organizations like Catalyst have played a notable role in increasing general awareness on gender pay gaps and equal opportunity at the work place. By inviting participation by large employers in the private and public sector, they have helped bring the conversation to life.

Increasingly research studies have found that women are just as successful as men in leadership roles but they have to work many times harder to get to the top. Only 12% of board seats in North America are held by women, and of that, only 3% by women of color.

It would appear that a foundational step to attracting more women in leadership is to simply attract more women to the workforce. There is progress on this front.

Statistics Canada finds that more women than ever are pursuing post-secondary education and joining the work force. Changing traditional gender roles means that more women are now able to contribute at managerial levels. However there are pay gaps and lack of equal opportunity for women at senior management and leadership levels. A growing number of women in business today have drive and ambition, but perceive a lack of visibility and support in order to break though the proverbial glass ceiling.

Women who do find themselves in positions of leadership today are creating their own paradigms. Juggling work success and pressures, with a personal life which requires no less dedication is teaching them to use their creative problem solving skills. The interview of Indra Nooyi, Chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo, sheds light on the kind of decisions a women leader of color has to make on a regular basis.

A number of larger employers have found business value in conducting sponsorship programs to help increase gender equality, inclusion and retention – specially among their high potentials. The next generation of women should expect to benefit in the form of strong role models and mentors who are accomplished women. But the way to do this is by including everyone in the conversation!

There are certainly pros and cons to singling out a group for so called ‘affirmative action’. However, in my mind (also supported by research), when a critical mass of educated women is given opportunity and receives support just as a matter of course, the conversation moves away from ‘women in leadership’, to simply ‘leadership’ and getting work done well.




Surekha Subramaniyan is a Coach, Consultant and millennial woman leader of color committed to Leadership, Inclusion and Equity.

She works with people and organizations to coach, facilitate critical conversations to change hearts & minds and co-create shifts. With exposure to diverse, global work environments, Surekha has rich experience in the corporate, non-profit, and government sectors across Asia-Pacific, Middle-East & North Africa and North America.

Surekha writes about leadership, inclusion and talent development within organizations.




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