Volume XIII | Issue 1 | Spring 2013
The U.S. Congress includes a record number of women: 20 senators and 79 representatives, but they are still a long way from parity with men.

Capable and connected

Does it matter if there is not gender parity or diversity in leadership positions? Yes.

As the the Ford Institute for Community Building looks ahead to the next 20 years, what it hopes to see are increasingly vital communities spread across rural Oregon and Siskiyou County, Calif. Experience suggests that capable and connected community leaders are essential to achieving that vision. 

Women leaders are an integral part of that vision, and the Ford Institute is heartened by the fact that more than half of the participants in its Leadership Program are women. Yet, as Ford Institute Director Joyce Akse points out, when it comes time to consider women for leadership positions, there is often a perception that the number of qualified women is lacking. 

Americans view women as more creative, compassionate, honest 

The issue of women in leadership has drawn a lot of attention in recent years and raised a host of questions. 

Do women lead differently than men?

In a research study on leadership traits in men and women, Pew Research Center reports that Americans view women as more creative, more compassionate, more honest, and more outgoing than their male counterparts. Men, on the other hand, are viewed as more decisive. Americans view women and men as equally hardworking and ambitious. 

 “In my experience, men and women generally approach work and leadership differently,” says Denise Callahan, director of The Ford Family Foundation Scholarship Programs. “In general, women are wired to be good listeners and have a desire to gather information from a broad platform before making decisions. There tends to be a ‘nurturing’ style and an awareness or care about the impact of decisions on others.” 

Research backs up Callahan’s observations. Women more often lead with a transformational style, which focuses on values, vision, mission and relationships. 

Why is there a gender imbalance in the Ford Institute Leadership Program?

Chart: 65% women, 35% menFord Institute Leadership Program graduates

Sixty-five percent of Ford Institute Leadership Program graduates are female and 74 percent of the Institute’s Community Ambassadors are women. The gender disparity may be as simple as numbers: Current research shows that rural counties in the United States are getting older, more ethnically diverse and increasingly female. 

The percentages may also be a reflection of women’s larger leadership role in all aspects of today’s society. “Think how the roles for women have changed in three short generations,” says Karla Chambers, a Foundation board member and co-owner of Stahlbush Island Farms near Corvallis. Chambers notes that, for the last 20 years, the plant manager at Stahlbush has been a woman; currently, three of the company’s four vice presidents are women.

Does gender balance matter in leadership situations?

Gender diversity is today widely acknowledged as a desirable trait in running a business, nonprofit or community group. A report by the Jacquelyn and Gregory Zehner Foundation identifies three reasons why: the diverse group almost always outperforms a homogenous (and potentially more capable group) by a substantial margin; gender-diverse leadership gives businesses a distinct competitive advantage; and organizations that focus on diversity experience improved talent retention.

A 2007 study by nonprofit organization Catalyst found that businesses with a higher proportion of women on their boards outperformed rivals in terms of returns on invested capital (66 percent higher), returns on equity (53 percent higher) and sales (42 percent higher). 

“In our business, I view diversity as a tremendous strength,” says Chambers. “We export to 25 countries, so we interact with many, many cultures. We value this diversity in our workplace because it brings us a broader view and better insights.”

How does gender parity play into the equation?

While gender diversity exists in civic, business and political sectors, gender parity often does not. In other words, women may serve in leadership roles, but not in the same proportions as men. Parity is important for women if their leadership is to have a significant impact. In their research on women in public office, Tali Mendelberg and Christopher Karposwitz acknowledge that the current Congress includes a record number of women: 20 senators and 79 representatives. Does that mean Congress is now more attentive to the needs of children, single mothers and other vulnerable populations? 

“Sadly, no,” the researchers write. “Our research shows that female lawmakers significantly reshape policies only when they have true parity with men.” 

In Powering Up! (see book review), author Anne Doyle agrees. “One or two token women in a group aren’t enough to significantly impact strategic conversations and decisions.”

What are the trends? Are women leaders gaining ground?

Although it is not unusual to see women holding top executive positions, they do not appear to be gaining ground. A pair of 2012 surveys on Fortune 500 companies found that women held only 16.6 percent of board seats in 2012, marking the seventh consecutive year of no growth; they held 14.3 percent of executive officer positions, flat-lining for the third straight year. The same holds true in the nonprofit world. The 2010 National Nonprofit Employment Trends Survey found that, although the vast majority of nonprofit positions are dominated by women, they occupy only 34 percent of senior-level executive positions.

The large number of women in the Ford Institute Leadership Program may have an impact on the state of female leadership in future years. “We hear, particularly from women, that participation in the Leadership Program has empowered them to leave their comfort zone and step up as leaders, run for public office, join boards of directors, and generally become more actively engaged in community efforts,” Akse says.  

What are the implications for the Institute’s community-building efforts? 

Men and women lead differently, with different strengths and different priorities. The Ford Institute for Community Building feels that rural communities are best served by tapping into all of these critical leadership traits. 

“True leadership is being able to leverage the skills and talents of everyone in the room, regardless of their gender,” says Callahan.

Akse agrees: “Don’t we want all the high-performing community leaders we can find, in both the public and private sectors, using all their collective talents, energy and skills to enhance community vitality? The Ford Institute thinks we do.”  

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