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A Gender Power Shift in the Making

We are well into the second decade of the 21st century, but the vexing topic of gender in corporate life is commanding more serious attention than ever before.

Only 5 percent Fortune 500 companies are headed by women. However, this statistic is obscuring signs of a subtle shift away from Western male domination. It is showing up in many different ways: the feminization of leadership styles, the importance of female purchasing power, the disruptive impact of the Internet on business models, the shift of economic power from west to east, and change in men's roles and attitudes towards work and family life.

Meanwhile, economic realities are bringing broader recognition among governments that economic growth depends on women fulfilling their potential in the labor force. The growing adoption of quotas worldwide has led CEOs in every region to view “diversity in our leadership ranks” as a hot-button challenge that they must address.

Another important argument for gender balance at the top is that doing so better reflects society and improves response to market trends and customer needs. Putting more women in decision making roles is an important step to improving businesses' ability to adapt to a changing marketplace. Having male senior executives talk about this issue persuasively—and, more important, act on it accordingly—is a breakthrough that points the way to shared leadership becoming the norm in successful businesses in the 21st century.

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Moreover, the very notion of power residing only at the top is under challenge. Technological and social changes are breaking down traditional hierarchies and distributing power more widely not only within companies, but between them and their networks of external partners. The democratization of work environments runs parallel to a decline in trust in traditional authority figures. Today, people are more likely to trust experts or put their faith in their peers, a situation that poses a challenge for leaders of traditional corporations. Those with their fingers on the pulse know they need to encourage greater diversity of leadership styles. Many are grappling with how to do accomplish that goal, but there is growing recognition that achieving gender balance is part of the solution. 

Likewise, soft power—that is, persuading people to do what you want by attracting and co-opting them, rather than by coercing them—is a concept now making headway in the business world. This participatory style—which, of course, is not limited to women—is also linked to more productive teamwork.

Technology is also putting more power into knowledge workers' hands. Many such workers have greater choice than ever before about how, where, and when they work. Women are leading the way in reshaping how jobs are done, including at senior levels. Technology enables them to keep in touch and flex their working pattern, but it takes courage, communication and careful time management to make it happen, especially in organizations and professions with conservative work cultures. These leaders are busting the myth that holding down a top job requires body-and-soul commitment to the corporation, and the sacrifice of personal life.

While the future looks more promising than the past for women in business today, there is a parallel opportunity for men. With greater power-sharing at work comes greater sharing of responsibility for children and the home. If more men are able to play their full role as fathers, it will be good for women’s progress, and for economic competitiveness as well. In addition, when families benefit from a sharing of power and responsibility between women and men, societies benefit, too.

There is a gender power shift in the making, but it is happening more slowly than necessary to benefit both individual men and women and the business world. Gender segregation of jobs remains a major stumbling block to equality. Millions of women are still concentrated in low-paid and often insecure “support” jobs. There are other vast divides, too, such as the lack of Internet access faced by many women in the developing world. Such divides present challenges as well as opportunities for governments, societies, and companies to address together through investment in higher skills, stronger persuasion, and imaginative breakthroughs. By giving women financial and educational opportunities, both societies and economies derive great benefits.

Achieving balance in positions of power and influence throughout the business world—and across the world in general—is an essential step forward. Ultimately, however, the gender power shift that is beginning to occur in 21st-century companies will be an indisputable triumph for economic and social progress if it enables women at every level to rise to their true potential.

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