More women at the top with a personal coaching app?

Even now, too few women are progressing to the top of the corporate ladder. For this reason, the French Minister for Women's Rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is launching the free app ‘Leadership Pour Elles’. This accessible, digital career coach gives women customised tips in the areas of leadership and wage negotiations and also helps them to deal with sexism. She hopes it will give women greater self-confidence and put them in a stronger position when competing with men in the workplace. There can be no doubt that this initiative is original and highly innovative. But can the app really make a difference? Professor Katleen De Stobbeleir, an expert in women and leadership, is already a fan but also highlights some important points to bear in mind.

Individual responsibility versus the company and society

“Whilst I welcome these kinds of apps, we need to go much further,” says Katleen. “This tool mainly focuses on self-confidence. How can women be better armed to make their voices count in an organisation? But in my opinion, this should be taken even further. How can women feel comfortable taking on the identity of a leader? Women in managerial roles often tend to come from a sense of duty or their conscience, whereas men tend to regard leadership as more of a game. In my opinion, women must also learn to enjoy this role. I hope that this app also focuses to some extent on the aspect of finding pleasure in a managerial role, rather than just developing self-confidence.”

In addition, Katleen feels that the tool also focuses too much on the individual, whereas nothing will happen if structural changes do not occur within the organisation and – taking it further – within society itself. By placing the responsibility solely on the woman, you run the risk of pushing women into a victim role, explains Katleen. “The tips and tricks in the app might well help you to overcome possible barriers within the organisation, but you shouldn't be naive. The message ‘it's down to you to break through that ceiling’ is too one-sided. We need a global approach which is firmly embedded in a broader picture.”

Figures alone are not enough

According to Katleen, however, by means of this app the French government is giving an important signal when it comes to raising awareness of a wider psychological problem. The number of women at the top is also determined by the prevailing mindset. “What you see happening in many countries is that men focus purely on the figures and then pull out all the legislative stops to improve these figures.” Here Katleen mentions the introduction of a quota in which a third of all executive boards must consist of women. “However, in countries which have applied this principle, we often see a simple shift in power to the top executives. Significant changes must therefore be made to this way of thinking. In order to achieve this, we must not only make women stronger but also need to actively bring men on board. Otherwise women will not be given fair treatment.”

Katleen argues in favour of shifting an overwhelmingly quantitative focus on figures and remuneration to a greater focus on the psychological factors which play a role in female leadership. “For example, in the Scandinavian countries they are studying social norms in the areas of women and leadership. And the US also has a national monitor: what do managers think of diversity in the top management team? In Belgium, these issues might be measured on a rather ad hoc basis but there is no systematic method of doing so. Evolutions do happen fairly frequently though, so it is important to chart what is happening.”

Do women actually need coaching?

Research has also shown that many women receive coaching because everyone assumes that they really need it. This coaching is often given by men within the organisation. According to Katleen, this sometimes comes across as rather patronising. “There must also be a reverse movement. As an organisation, you must also be willing to actively bring more women up to the top and not always try to change things through coaching. Coaching also means changing your behaviour, often in line with a prevailing norm, which is dangerous. However, it is precisely in the diversity that the added value is found. You have to allow women to be authentic, so I hope this app will not go too much down the path of ‘fix the women’. A lot more needs to happen to make women feel truly comfortable in a leadership role.”

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