Shattering Glass Borders – by Beth Gitlin

Developing and Promoting Women Leaders in Global Organizations

Promoting women’s leadership in global organizations is really an economic and sustainability issue rather than a diversity issue. Companies must focus on successful outcomes and bottom lines. In this case, the bottom line is earning a profit, creating shareholder value and focusing on economic sustainability. CEO’s can’t afford to continue to conduct business as usual. Globalization has shifted into warp speed leading to limited resources, increasing costs and rising awareness of political and economic instability in certain areas of the world. And, corporate leaders must find innovative and creative ways to meet these challenges head-on.

Within the global economy, we are at a juncture in which there are several paths from which to choose in order to increase economic prosperity and sustainability, and it is time to realize that a major human capital resource has been largely untapped and underutilized in this arena. The value and necessity of developing and promoting women leaders in global organizations has been recognized by a small number of multinational organizations, yet there are significant statistics that tell an amazing story which largely reflect an underutilized and highly educated female global citizenry and workforce ready and waiting to lead their organizations.

Coke and General Motors
Muhta Kent, the CEO of Coca-Cola, Inc, stated that he found disconnection between the percentage of women in leadership roles in Coca-Cola, and young women executives coming into the company, and the people buying their products. Women spend about $20 trillion worldwide (an amount that is larger than the US, China and India combined), and over 70% of Coca-Cola’s consumer spending decisions are made by women. Yet, in 2008, only 23% of women were assigned senior leadership roles in Coca-Cola. He commented that brands get better when women are put in leadership positions. And, the company launched a Global Women’s Initiative to accelerate development of female talent.

More recently, General Motors promoted its first female CEO, Mary Barra, and the 23rd female CEO to be named to a Fortune 500 company. A significant achievement for the auto industry in general, her promotion highlights the fact that still only 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, yet women account for 50% of the workforce and approximately 60% of graduates with bachelors and higher education degrees in the US. Furthermore, women account for 83% of direct consumer spending worldwide. Organizations can no longer afford to deprive themselves of 50% of the global population’s brainpower and leadership skills.

Feminine or global style of leadership?
Many researchers have identified interaction styles, patterns of speaking and communication, and character traits that have been typified as feminine attributes. Some of these traits are relational qualities, empathy, caring, interpersonal sensitivity, acceptance of others, teamwork orientation, possessing a collaborative nature and motivation in seeking what can be done for others with less focus on acquiring personal recognition. Traditionally, these characteristics of leadership have been credited as feminine attributes in North American management literature and may more likely reflect the dichotomization of male/female patterns of leadership in American culture.

Yet, in other parts of the world – including some of the fastest growing economies of Asia – many of the characteristics listed above actually appeal to a more universal, broader style of leadership that is practiced by both men and women. Moreover, successful twenty-first century global leadership, in general, is increasingly being described in terms that reflect some of the traits and qualities above that have been traditionally characterized as feminine qualities.

Often, leaders in US multinational organizations suggest that perhaps they shouldn’t send their high potential women managers to certain countries for a global assignment because a specific country’s culture may be extremely masculine in nature and may not be respectful of women in its values and beliefs. Unfortunately, what US male leaders may not realize is that many of these cultures recognize the individual’s rank and foreigner expertise first, and gender second. Furthermore, it is possible for women expatriates to achieve successful outcomes with the appropriate support functions in place. Research suggests that, on average, women expatriate managers outperform their American male counterparts.

What can be done now?
The process of developing and promoting women leaders doesn’t happen overnight so the need to start now is extremely urgent. Many of the steps that are suggested can be applied to any high potential candidate in the organization. First of all, in order to develop women leaders, create a pipeline by increasing women’s participation in high visibility assignments and task forces that carry a global focus. Second, create flexible international assignments of shorter duration. Third, address the issue of work/life balance head on and create flexible work schedules and support programs that will attract and engage high potential women in the organization. Fourth, focus on creating programs for other women stakeholders that may be external to the company including consumers and suppliers. Finally, organize a leadership and mentor program to address the needs of the female mid-level managers in order to maintain continuity for the leadership pipeline.

The success and sustainable longevity of a global company depends on the leadership of both men and women within its organization. It is not about the battle of the sexes, rather it is about tapping into what women have to offer as global leaders in order to preserve and enhance the world’s economic, environmental and social fabric in the complex globalization process

Beth Gitlin, MBA, MA, is the Director of the Women’s Business Center and Fellow of the Institute for Cross Cultural Management (ICCM) at the Florida Institute of Technology. 


Institute for CrossCultural Management Florida Institute of Technology

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