Duke CE’s latest Lead with Her conference put a spotlight on the need for leaders around the world to redouble their commitment to advancing women in leadership 

Investing in women is a human rights imperative.” That was the powerful argument advanced by Duke Corporate Education’s chief executive, Sharmla Chetty, as she opened the fourth annual Lead with Her event, under the banner of Inclusive Futures.

“It is the cornerstone for building inclusive societies. Progress for women benefits us all. Let’s build for this better world, the world we’d all like to live in. The world where women can stand shoulder to shoulder with men, enjoying equality of opportunity, equality of access, and equality of reward.” Chetty’s challenge set the tone for a stimulating day of discussion at the London event. Here are three of the key themes. 

Invest in the leadership pipeline 

Panelists and speakers spoke repeatedly about the task of investing in the next generation of leaders, developing talent in an inclusive and equitable way.

“We must focus on appointing representative leaders to board positions,” said Julia Alexander, co-founder and chief product officer, ExecOnline. “But it’s equally as important that we work to broaden pipelines and increase access so that years from now, we will have more people who are ready to take on those positions.”

Malebogo Mpugwa, executive head of HR, De Beers, pointed out that today’s talent pipeline is likely to look significantly different from the past. “What is talent of the future?” she asked. “Is it someone who works hard? Is it someone who’s loyal? Is it someone who’s dedicated? Or is it someone who understands the importance of role modeling what balance and work-life balance means?” The challenge for leaders, Mpugwa said, is to be clear about how talent is defined for the future – and about the capabilities required to be considered as talent.

Representatives from several leadership development programs for women took the stage during spotlight presentations including Ayanda Mafuleka (see interview, page 30). Lisa Gray, global learning and development director, Astellas Pharma Europe, spoke about the impact of the company’s Connect and Lift program, saying: “Our future female leaders have not only been able to network between themselves, but also benefited from the experience of senior leaders who have uplifted, excited, engaged and inspired them.”

Inclusion beyond diversity

One of the strongest messages from the Lead with Her conference was that diversity is not enough. Panelists and speakers pointed out that to retain diverse employees and create equity, leaders must also create inclusivity, by lifting diverse voices and bringing them to the forefront. Women need to be given a seat at the table, in boardrooms as well as other places where decisions are being made in organizations and in society more broadly.

Sarah Boddey, global head of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at Munich Re, told the audience that is essential to push back when people say that DEI is untested and unproven: “We need to challenge the concept that DEI is new. Humanity has been fighting for diversity, equity and inclusion for as long as humanity has existed, particularly the underrepresented groups within humanity.”

Dineo Mathlako, deputy high commissioner of South Africa to the UK, pointed out that times of war in particular have inflicted a high cost on women globally. “People who bear the brunt in any conflict are women – and yet we are never at the forefront of peaceful solutions. If we had more women negotiating peace, maybe we’d have moved 10 steps forward, because for us, it’s urgent.”

Time to reboot

Keynote speaker Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, wrapped up the conference with a powerful call to action. The malfunctioning of an operating system mirrors the breakdown of societal systems plagued by systemic social inequity, she explained. Leaders need to “reboot,” she said, to create change in society. By disrupting the status quo, individuals and groups can initiate processes of reflection, reconciliation and reform to address social inequity.

Three critical issues need to be addressed, explained Rosette. The first is biased preferences. In 2008, Rosette published research on the white standard of leadership, demonstrating that there exists a prototype of leadership such that leaders are expected to be white. Fifteen years later, she and her colleague showed that while the bias for white leaders had gone away at an explicit level, it still existed implicitly. When biases and preferences that promote exclusivity and attempt to minimize inclusivity persist – even without awareness – organizations should reboot by designing incentives that align with the desired outcomes. 

Second, enduring gender stereotypes undermine the effectiveness of women – yet they can carry positive connotations, as in the case of certain types of negotiations. Rosette’s research found women are less likely to reach an impasse or walk away with no deal: while women may negotiate differently to men, they are more likely to make a deal in the end. 

Thirdly, said Rosette, when opposition to DEI initiatives occurs, it can be an effective strategy to help people with decision-making power to recall their own disadvantages in life. This can help them better understand the disadvantages faced by marginalized communities. In Rosette’s research, those who had experienced disadvantages were more likely to recognize privilege – and thus more likely to stand behind DEI initiatives. 

Recordings from the Lead with Her 2024 conference are available at info.dukece.com/leadwithher#recordings