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At this year’s G7 summit, the heads of the world’s most powerful economies united, briefly, to discuss the most important global issues. The US, France, Japan, Italy, Canada, UK, and Germany had brought their premier politicians. Only the latter had a woman in that role.
Women as an anomaly
According to the UN, women serve as Heads of State or Government in only 22 countries worldwide and only 21 per cent of government ministers are women. In fact, globally, women make up less than a quarter of national parliamentarians meaning governmental change is largely, not being shaped by women.
And this isn’t an anomaly. A cursory glance at the boards of S&P 500 companies show a shocking gender imbalance. Only 6% of CEO positions are held by women. A recent report by Deloitte found that overall, 16.9% of board seats were held by women, and 12.7% of CFO roles globally. Perhaps more worryingly, The Reykjavik Index for Leadership found that both men and women find it difficult to even imagine women in leadership roles.
Companies are missing out on women’s voices, ideas, and the possibility of change because of a lack of their voices in policy-making. Skills that women can contribute to an organisation - such as listening to a range of perspectives, adapting to the customs of a community and elevating others4- are missing across the Global North and South. Research shows that company profits and share performance can be close to 50 percent higher when women are well represented at the top.
Acting as inspiration
Despite the barriers, women are reaching the top and paving the way for others. Today we hear from two women who are leaders in their respective fields, as they share their experiences on being women of change.
Cathriona Hallahan, Managing Director, Microsoft Ireland
Cathriona Hallahan, Managing Director of Microsoft Ireland and recipient of the inaugural Dublin Women of Concern award in 2018, knows first-hand the challenges facing future women leaders. In 1986, three years after graduating from secondary school, Cathriona joined Microsoft’s fledgling operation in Ireland. She faced many challenges throughout her career and a key skill she nurtured was the ability to multitask and take on new challenges to learn more about the business, develop new skills, experiment, and take risks. This served her well over the course of her 35-year career at Microsoft, the last eight of which have been in the role of Managing Director of Irish operations.
Having missed out on a role early on in her career because her boss thought she had not shown the aspiration, she made sure to learn from the experience and never let an opportunity pass her by again. It made her realise the importance of believing in yourself and not being afraid to be ambitious. This helped her to drive change in her working life and to kickstart her own journey as a leader in the company.
Businesses simply cannot afford to ignore the talent of half of the population.
The age old saying - if you can’t see it you won’t be it – resonates strongly with Cathriona and as such, she uses her position to inspire others and encourage everyone, especially young women, on the importance of pursuing careers and leadership positions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Sadly, women remain significantly under-represented in STEM-based careers with just 30% of Europe’s ICT workforce currently made up of women. Businesses simply cannot afford to ignore the talent of half of the population.
To become a leader in your field, it is vital to harness diverse skills and perspectives within a team. Through her own experience at Microsoft, Cathriona has seen how an increasingly diverse team has helped to foster a growth mindset where everyone is empowered to achieve more. In an era increasingly shaped by change and transformation, aspiring leaders should continually look ahead and set out short and long-term goals that can help them reach their full potential.
Throughout her career, Cathriona has been supported by many colleagues and managers to reach her potential. She has always greatly appreciated and valued this support and is therefore passionate about paying it forward so that she can support the next generation of leaders to achieve their goals.
Amina Abdulla, Regional Director for the Horn of Africa, Concern Worldwide
Amina Abdulla, Regional Director for the Horn of Africa at Concern Worldwide, never imagined herself working in the humanitarian sector, she is now an expert in strategic management and policy, encouraging gender equality across Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia. She was inspired by her mother, who was married at fifteen but left her husband to pursue an education. Witnessing the strength of that decision, Abdulla vowed to continue to inspire other women - committing herself to removing barriers for those like her.
Often, she attends meetings where other officials are surprised that she is a woman: and is told by other women that they want their leaders to look like her. She speaks about how vital it is that humanitarian charities reflect the work they engage with. 60% of Concern’s leadership team are women, and Amina insists on a commitment that male counterparts support their spouses or female relatives. She has seen the horrors of war and poverty, and seen it exacerbated by the lack of female role models - vowing to provide a model of a society that isn’t limited by its lack of imagination.
She isn’t whimsical about the challenge, however. Challenging societal norms requires difficult work. Often, women themselves cannot see their potential, so Amina concentrates on the need to overcome the limitations set by stereotypes. With an eye on the individual development of those in her team, her mission is to incentivise female leaders from a local to international level in the Global South. The deliberate action of designing this change in her life has provided a framework for others in the corporate and development sectors, and from there, those at every level of an organisation.
Challenging societal norms requires difficult work. Often, women themselves cannot see their potential.
The lives of women can be improved
Imagining women at the top and helping them fulfill their potential - is the first step to a truly equal world.
Through women listening to each other’s experiences, applying unique skills they can bring across a range of industries and implementing policy change, the lives of women across the world can be dramatically improved.
Women of Concern are committed to ending poverty in the Global South - this can only truly happen when gender equality is realised and for that, we need more female leaders. More than that, there needs to be a drastic shift in global opinion, and it starts with imagining and supporting women at the helm of change.
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