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We need more female graduates to become CEOs. Here’s what universities can do

women leadership study international
There should be more women CEOs in this photo. Source: Study International

The image above of six women CEOs should not be interpreted in any way but inspiring. They speak of the long way we have come since the first suffragette vote was cast and the first women were allowed to go to university. They suggest that with the right education, glass ceilings can be shattered.

But there should be more women in that image.

Study International and our sister brands Tech HQ, Tech Wire Asia and U2B conducted a joint data project to find out more about the presence of women in senior management posts in the world’s largest companies.

We looked at the top 10 companies with the largest market cap in the stock market exchange in these 10 countries and regions: US, UK, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Europe, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The results show only six women (the ones pictured above) are CEOs out of these 100 companies – that’s a dismal six percent and a far cry from many country’s gender parity goals. The global average of firms led by a woman is 18.2 percent, according to World Bank data, despite the many reported benefits a more gender-diverse leadership would bring to companies’ bottom line.

Representation in other critical C-suite positions – such as COO, CMO, CIO and CFO – either fared equally or insignificantly better.

Predictably, the C-suite role with the highest number of women is Chief of Human Resources Officer.

CEO Company Degree University
Jessica Tan Ping An Insurance, China 2 Bachelor degrees in Electrical Engineering
& Economics
Master’s in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Zhang Keqiu Agricultural Bank of China Master’s in Economics Nankai University, China
Chua Sock Koong Singtel, Singapore Bachelor of Accountancy National University of Singapore
Shemara Wikramanayake Macquarie Group, Australia Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws
Advanced Management Programme
UNSW, Australia

Harvard Business School

Emma Walmsley GlaxoSmithKline, UK Bachelor’s in Classics & Modern Languages
Master’s in Classics & Modern Languages
Oxford University
Helena Helmersson Hennes & Mauritz AB, Sweden Master’s in International Business Umeå University, Sweden

The findings stand in stark contrast to women representation in higher education.

Women make up the majority of university graduates globally. In Australia, women represent 58.4 percent of students in higher education and outnumber men in higher education completion rates. In Canada, 53 percent of women completed their bachelor’s degree within four years while only 41 percent of men did so.

Chinese women dominate higher education with 52.92 percent of tertiary graduates being female – similarly in Sweden (62.23 percent), Indonesia (58.66 percent), US (58.41 percent), UK (57.22 percent), Malaysia (53.18 percent) and Singapore (53.06 percent).

Our data shows that the six women CEOs have diverse qualifications and are at the helm of equally varied industries, alluding to their multi-disciplinary skillset.

As University of South Australia, Adelaide lecturer Jill Gould told Study International: “It’s not a supply issue. They’re just as educated as men. And they have the experience they need to do well. It’s not a question of ability or competence. There are lists of board-ready women, for example.”

“Don’t ever accept the argument that women aren’t ready,” the lecturer at UniSA’s School of Management said.

women leadership study international

There is one clear message for international students from this visual: Women CEOs are scarce but they have diverse qualifications and are found across multiple industries.  Source: Study International

The problem lies in the demand. There are many reasons why the same rates of tertiary education completion are not reflected in the upper echelons of the corporate world, from gender strereotypes (“They’re perceived to lack the ability to make the tough decisions needed of senior leaders”) to lack of policies such as flexible work arrangements (“She is perceived as lacking the ambition needed for these senior roles”).

Then there’s the tendency to hire people who look like us. Many organisations were built when men populated the workforce, and they haven’t kept up with the times.

“When networks are leveraged to find candidates, men’s networks are more likely to be populated with other men. It means that candidate pools end up male-dominated. So men are the likely appointees for senior roles,” she explained.

Li Fang Lim, a rising R&D Engineer at HP Inc concurs that such social stigma is holding women back, particularly in the engineering sector.

“Typically, women are stereotyped to be ‘soft’ and ‘gentle’ and when we stray from these traits, we are perceived as ‘cold’ and ‘unwelcoming’,” she said.

But a supportive environment can make all the difference.

Lim already has two patents for light designs, which are used in the HP Tango, one of HP’s home printers catered to modern millennial families, despite only being with the company for three years.

The Nanyang Technological University graduate credits this to the flexibility and mentorship she’s received at the company, with the latter allowing her to regularly check-in to discuss her career paths.

“Everyone on the team treats each other as equals, regardless of gender, background or experience. This culture of openness means I am never afraid to share my ideas with the team. In fact, we’re all encouraged to always speak our minds and share our ideas,” she said.

The role of universities

At UniSA, for example, the campus-wide “Small Steps” programme provides evidence of gender bias and examples of small steps any individual can take to overcome these biases.

Business cases written for universities typically have male protagonists, which happens around 80 percent of the time, according to Gould. Whereas female protagonists are often portrayed as concerned and worried, ie. “not a strong role model”.

“We’re perpetuating stereotypes here. We are asking staff to take a “small step” and have a look at their business cases to make sure women are present and portrayed positively,” Gould said.

Company policies and university support can replicate Li Fang’s success for more women engineers. Source: Li Fang Lim

Lim concurs that it’s important for universities to recognise the challenges and having more open conversations about the gender gap.

“Today, it can still be quite challenging for women to balance their personal and professional lives. In all our environments – be it in school, workplace or leisure – we need to have strong support systems that allow and enable women to advocate for, and support, each other,” she said.

“Being emotionally available to your fellow colleague or student is important. If more universities and companies can facilitate opportunities for us to share our concerns and learn from others, it will help women be more confident in taking up leadership positions.”

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