Female representation in management positions: where do we stand and what does the future hold?

C-suite and board Career tips Management and leadership Article
In 2020, Robert Half Executive Search profiled the CEOs of the BEL20 companies. This showed that the average CEO in a listed organisation was Belgian, male and 56 years old. Although limited research in 2024 has already revealed greater diversity in the boardroom, women still remain underrepresented in positions of leadership, on management boards and on boards of directors. Why is this, what solutions exist and what might the future hold? To find an answer to these questions and gain new insights, we presented a number of statements to five women whose jobs involve them closely in the highest levels of business: Ann Cattelain (CEO of Federgon), Daphné Debaenst (co-founder & managing director of House of Executives Belgium), Liesbeth De Ridder (secretary general & centre family business governance  at GUBERNA), Veronique Elskens (regional director of Executive Search Benelux at Robert Half) and Gaëlle Helsmoortel (chair of Women On Board Belgium).
Statement 1: Is gender balance only possible if it is imposed from above? In other words, should we impose quotas? DE RIDDER: “In 2023, all the Belgian listed companies had at least one woman on the board of directors for the first time in history. That’s a milestone, but there’s still a long way to go. We are advocating ‘soft law’ (legal instruments that cannot be legally enforced or are difficult to enforce but still have a regulatory effect, ed.) to further stimulate this evolution. There is also a discrepancy between the number of women on boards of directors (37%) and in executive management (17%). This may be related to the type of tasks involved in executive management positions. These are – unjustifiably – more associated with masculine characteristics and therefore more often go to men.” HELSMOORTEL: “At Women On Board, we see that Belgium is one of the best students in the class in terms of the representation of women at C-level. It’s clear that quotas work. So in order to achieve an even better gender balance, it would be good for it to come from above.” CATTELAIN: “Although I’m fundamentally opposed to quotas, I can’t deny that they have an effect. I agree with what Liesbeth says about soft law. In Belgium, we already have a number of pioneering women in key positions. Role models can help more women progress to the top.” DEBAENST: “I agree with that; I strongly believe in leading by example. But that takes time, so quotas can lead to changes more quickly.” HELSMOORTEL: “In this context, it’s also important to mention that women network less than men, and in a different way. If organisations claim they can’t find women for the board, they need to make more effort and look beyond the usual suspects. There are plenty of women with the skills required, but you don’t always find them in the same places as men.” ELSKENS: “Quotas can help to achieve greater focus on this issue in a neutral and irreversible way, but I would also like to advocate the more ‘organic’ growth of the balance through other initiatives that have an immediate impact and allow women to progress to top positions based on natural credibility.”
Statement 2: Is it actually up to the government to determine which profiles should lead a company? Could there be a gender imbalance because women are less interested in a management position? HELSMOORTEL: “I don’t think women are necessarily less interested in management positions, but they do have different ambitions. I might be generalising here, but I think women primarily want to add value, which means they are less likely to advance to the top of the organisation. For many women, the interests of the company come before their own interests.” ELSKENS: “I also think that men’s motivation is fundamentally different from women’s. While men are more focused on facts and results, women tend to focus on making a difference and a meaningful contribution within the company in the long term. It seems that this mindset makes them less successful in manifesting their motivation in a management position.” CATTELAIN: “I follow the reasoning that women are more concerned with values and less with their personal branding. This makes them less likely to apply for positions for which they may not have all the required competencies, in contrast to men.” DEBAENST: “Women must have the courage to make themselves more visible. When looking for speakers for the conferences I organise, I always try to achieve a balance between men and women. All the same, I invariably end up with men more quickly: they’re just easier to find. In the long run this leads to the same people always being listed as experts, which means they are asked to speak even more often. But I am seeing a positive evolution: the younger generation of women has more courage to step out, both internally in the company and to the outside world.” CATTELAIN: “In my opinion, the underrepresentation of women is also connected to how they network. Networking events still have a predominantly male audience. Women do not want to put as much energy into such events and often set different priorities. This means they have fewer networks from which to choose leading roles. Executive search agencies can play a major role in changing this and looking for the many competent women out there.”
Statement 3: A study by McKinsey (Women in the workplace, 2023) shows that the biggest obstacle for women is not the glass ceiling, but the first step from professional to manager. Should we first strive for gender equality in middle management so that women can advance automatically to the higher levels? ELSKENS: “Companies have a great responsibility to monitor how employees progress to a managerial position. The more they do this based on the right parameters, the greater the chance that women will end up at the top of the organisation. What really struck me about the McKinsey report is that women are still very often faced with microaggressions in the workplace (small verbal or non-verbal expressions, based on implicit assumptions, which can not only be experienced as offensive or insulting but which also indirectly perpetuate stereotypes and inequality, ed.). Women who face microaggressions are much less likely to feel psychologically safe and this makes it harder to take risks, propose new ideas or express concerns. Fortunately, I notice that the younger generation are more aware of their strengths as women and have the courage to defy them.” DEBAENST: “I see young women taking the step towards leadership more quickly today. Because they grew up and were educated in a culture of equality, they have a different mindset and don’t let themselves be pushed into a corner.” HELSMOORTEL: “Many passionate young women participate in our ‘Women On Track’ programme. When I see them, I’m convinced that there is still a lot of room for women at the top.” DE RIDDER: “The upcoming generation really is different. I see many female entrepreneurs in family businesses who are already starting to professionalise at a young age. This growing influx at the bottom gives a lot of confidence for the future.” DEBAENST: “The growing focus on talent management and internal mobility in companies is also encouraging. This can certainly help talent to progress, regardless of gender.”
Statement 4: Soft skills are becoming increasingly important at C-level. Could this contribute to more women in directors’ roles and executive bodies? DE RIDDER: “Studies show that women have more soft skills and are more engaged in ESG-related topics, which are very important today. All the same, I’m convinced that personality is the deciding factor when it comes to whether or not women progress to directorships. After all, you also have ‘softer’ men and ‘harder’ women. Of course, it’s a good thing that more attention is being paid to soft skills at the C-level. In my opinion, this has more to do with the evolution of generations than with gender.” HELSMOORTEL: “Soft skills such as authentic and empathetic leadership are indeed becoming increasingly important, especially with increasing digitisation and the rise of AI. These are indeed characteristics that are typically associated with women. However, I’m not sure whether all companies at C-level pay enough attention to this and whether it will automatically lead to more women in management positions. In many organisations, results still take priority. They are all engaged in ESG too, but often because it’s mandatory.” ELSKENS: “Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we will look at results in the same way ten years from now, for example. Perhaps we will take a more value-driven approach to performance by then, an approach which women can relate to more? It is also important in this context that there should be a balance between hard skills and soft skills, between male and female. It’s not black and white.”
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Finally: what tip would you like to give women who aspire to a leadership position? CATTELAIN: “Know your strengths, believe in yourself and have the courage to take the plunge. Don’t be afraid to respond to a job vacancy even if you don’t think you meet all the criteria.” HELSMOORTEL: “Above my desk, there’s a quote by the British actress Emma Watson: ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’ That quote is my source of inspiration and my motivation. If you want something, go for it.” DE RIDDER: “Everything has already been done, but not now and not yet by you. I think that’s a great quote. It’s so important to do things in your own unique way. And another valuable piece of advice is to acknowledge the men who give you opportunities as well.” DEBAENST: “My tip to women would be that they must both create and seize opportunities. Be patient in your efforts and don’t give up too soon. Perseverance pays off.” ELSKENS: “Trust your gut feeling. Stay your authentic self, otherwise you’ll be letting yourself and others down. And talk to men as well, because they experience self-doubt too.”   Note: this interview focuses on gender. This obviously does not mean that Robert Half tolerates any other form of discrimination.