Why the world needs more women leaders in science and business

Academic networking

Professor Kiran Trehan of the University of Birmingham Business School spoke at the inaugural Women Academic Entrepreneurs network event on 15th January 2020. In this piece for the University of Birmingham she explains, ahead of International Women’s Day on the 8th March, why the world needs more women leaders in science and business. 

There are three basic reasons why leadership inclusivity is key to science and business.

  • Companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity are more likely to have higher financial returns than the industry average.
  • Female leaders in science and business are a significant pool of untapped entrepreneurial talent.
  • Leadership diversity in science and business enhances creativity, innovation and brings new science perspectives to research and product development.

Female Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of large firms are a rare breed. In the USA in 2015, there were more CEOs called John in the S&P 1500 companies than women according to a November 2017 paper in the Journal of Business Research.

In the UK currently there are only six female CEOs in the firms covered by the FTSE 100 index and 12 in the FTSE 250 index. In the FTSE 100 there were only four women chairs, 185 women on the executive committee out of 991 positions and 283 board members out of 1065 positions.

There is a similar, and even starker, under-representation of women’s leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The reasons for this continued under-representation around the world is not new and yet the solutions continue to challenge us all. Research the University of Birmingham has highlighted women’s leadership in STEM and business is not a standalone issue but interconnected to culture, political, social and economic change. Inclusive leadership is not just about diversity quotas or numbers on boards; it is about ensuring women are included in decision-making, strategy and operations.

Grasping the Nettle: Why women leaders in science and business are doing it for themselves

How do we grasp the nettle to ensure we have more women in STEM as careers of choice?

Research from a variety of sources including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) argue the leadership gap is not simply to do with choices that women make at university.

Perception, stereotypes, and aspirations at an early age play a significant role in overcoming social and professional barriers.

For example, research conducted by the World Economic Forum illustrates how India has increased the number of women studying and working in engineering by changing the perceptions of the family, encouraging their daughters into engineering because it offers good employment prospects for females. However, change continues to be slow. Even when women grasp the nettle and take up leadership roles in science and business, they are confronted with the glass ceiling. Evidence shows that women find it harder to secure research grants, venture capital for science and technology start-ups. Despite these challenges, the future offers exciting potential for women to challenge and disrupt existing stereotypes in order to close the leadership gender gap in science and business.

Making leadership inclusivity is our business and only can be achieved if we deal with the issues based on these policy recommendations:

  1. Challenging and changing expectations and perceptions at an early age.
  2. Addressing the ‘leaky pipeline’.
  3. Reverse mentoring and creating more role models that are diverse.
  4. Developing peer-to-peer networks.
  5. STEM education tracks in school curriculum that is action-led.
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