On the 4th May 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first female British Prime Minister serving in that role for over a decade. It took a further 26 years for Britain to get its second female Prime Minister, Theresa May. Both women were / are extraordinarily intelligent, organised, dedicated and experienced. Now, America may be on the verge of appointing its first female President and she is likewise extraordinarily intelligent, organised, dedicated, experienced, thick skinned, and successful in a number of fields, ambitious and strategic!
It is enormously important to publicise and celebrate women “breaking glass ceilings”, especially on the global stage, because it affects and inspires so many lives. However, there is an equally important need to focus attention on the next step – making it easier for more women to get to the top. If the price of entry for women into the higher echelons of government and Fortune 500 boardrooms is that we need to excel almost to the point of being superhuman, it is no wonder it takes a quarter of century for each one of us to break through.
In the private sector the story is much the same – despite there being a mountain of data showing that diversity in general, including equality in female leadership of companies significantly increases profitability, only 4% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. Similarly, despite data showing that start-up companies in Silicon Valley with at least one female founder outperformed all-male teams by 63%, only 10% of founders are women. In addition, women entrepreneurs receive just 19% of angel funding and even less of venture funding; given the evidence on the success rate of female firms, this should be the opposite.
Research conducted by Sarah Thebaud at Princeton University looked more closely into the ecosystem that affects entrepreneurs. She conducted three experimental studies in the UK and the US in which participants were asked to evaluate the profiles of two entrepreneurs and to make investment decisions for each. The studies manipulated the gender of the entrepreneur and the innovativeness of the new organisation. The main finding was consistent – gender status beliefs, particularly around competence, generally disadvantaged women entrepreneurs. To be seen as competent and worthy of funding, women have to out-perform and to be exceptionally innovative; whereas men can secure backing with far less.
In addition to being extraordinary, women still have to “play the game”. We are judged on appearance and behaviour in such a way that only a very narrow range of characteristics (be they aesthetic or personality driven) are acceptable if we want to get ahead. While there are cultural variations in what is acceptable, the general theme is universal. A well-tailored, none threatening, attractive (but not sexy) appearance matched with an intelligent, knowledgeable, calm and direct (but not forceful) demeanour. It’s also helpful if your ambition is masked by a seeming willingness to work as part of, and for the good of, the “team” until such a time as you become so indispensable that they have to put you in charge, or the team is in crisis. Any deviation from these basic characteristics can lead to swift and often angry rebukes. Indeed, why is it viewed as a negative for Hillary Clinton to have always wanted to be President – she has worked her whole life in public service with the aim of rising to the top – while on the other hand Donald Trump’s life ambition of being a billionaire is applauded?
In my own, by comparison, much smaller and less significant way, I have had to adapt to a world where being a successful female leader required personal comprise and a tremendous amount of hard work, pretty much all the time.
As the CEO of LADOL, I work with a number of oil and gas companies in Nigeria. Our petroleum sector is large with a wide range of companies and people, but one of the few common threads is that they are not used to seeing women in meetings, let alone leading them. The fact that I am Nigerian and female really makes some people uncomfortable. Early on as CEO I had a negotiation with a foreign company where the older male representative could not even look me in the eye or hear my words – yet when I had a male colleague repeat exactly what I said, suddenly we were on the same page. This is an extreme, but it still happens on occasion. To this day I still find myself in meetings where men don’t talk directly to me.
Fortunately, we women often excel at teamwork, so leveraging my team to aid successful negotiations is usually an effective antidote. Effective negotiations are about organisations aligning interests by agreeing contracts that benefit all stakeholders. But as CEO, occasionally forceful interventions are needed. I learned that as a woman such interventions are most effective when we stay very calm (no matter the level of provocation) and patient.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, listed the key universal attributes of ultra-successful people, one of which was that they had all spent years honing their craft. From the Beatles to Bill Gates, each one had spent an average of 10,000 hours (that is over two years, working 12 hours a day, every single day) doing nothing but studying, practising, working on the one thing that ultimately made them successful. As Hillary Clinton’s nomination by the DNC was beamed across the world, billions of women now know it’s possible for an extraordinary woman to wield a big enough sledgehammer to break the glass ceiling and crawl through. Given that over 50% of college entrants in the West are now women, maybe if we spend more time learning about and publicising what it takes to wield that sledgehammer over the next 25 years, we’ll have enough women standing on top of that glass ceiling to shatter it for good.
 Note: The world’s first female Prime Minister was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanke, elected on 20th July 1960. The election of a woman head of government was so unusual that newspapers weren’t sure what to call her.
First published on Forbes
Dr Amy Jadesimi is the Managing Director, LADOL