Opinion Piece: Empowering Women on Their Path to Leadership – How Can We Accelerate Change?

Author: Ally of the Year Impact Award Winner Terhi Kivinen  (She/Her), Chief Communications Officer at Kemira

[Pictured L-R] Aad Buis (He/Him), Workplace Pride Board Member, Ally of the Year Impact Award Winner Terhi Kivinen (She/Her) – Kemira, Leon Pieters (He/Him) Workplace Pride Board Member.

When I started as a Communications Trainee in Nokia Telecommunications in May 1994 the work and the world were different. We were excited to receive emails. The wonder of modern technology at the office was the fax. Travelling for work was considered glamorous. We used phones to call people. And we did not have so many women or other minorities in leadership positions. Now, nobody likes emails, fax is not a thing anymore, travelling means long queues and endless waiting, and phones are used for mostly other things than calls. But what remains is the fact that there still are fewer minorities in leadership positions. 

There has been positive development over these three decades and many organisations have recognised the benefits of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging but this is not the case in all organisations. Diversity tends to go down in line with seniority.¹ Women and LGBTIQ+ employees may feel that they need to provide additional proof points of their competence to advance in the workplace.² At the same time we have data from various studies showing the companies with diverse leadership (gender and otherwise) outperform the ones without.³ Investors can do the math and are now looking into companies’ diversity practices and pushing the change to happen. It is interesting to see if this finally makes the difference in improving women’s and other minorities’ representation in the leadership pipeline. Usually, money has a great deal of influence. 

What do people in underrepresented groups in general want from their careers or the workplace? In my experience they want the same as everyone else wants: respectful treatment, safe workplace, meaningful work, continuous feedback, flexibility, development and career opportunities. Inclusive leadership culture can create a work environment where everyone can thrive and have opportunities to grow and advance to the very top positions of the organisation. 

What are some concrete actions organisations and all of us already in leadership positions can take to be more inclusive? We can all examine our own biases (yes, we all have them) and be allies, mentors and sponsors for leadership minorities. We can widen the candidate pools when hiring, support internal growth opportunities, offer leadership training, and ensure equitable promotion policies. We can increase flexibility, analyse and correct gender pay gaps, reward people who drive change and help build psychological safety. 

Role models are also helpful. This can be more difficult especially for the LGBTIQ+ colleagues who may not have so many role models to choose from. I have learned a great deal about leadership by observing my various bosses navigating their jobs and leading people and organisations, some very big and some smaller ones. I do not have statistically meaningful study results to share with you on this but based on my observations and experience, kindness, authenticity and inclusiveness make a more impactful leadership style. The “what” is important but the “how” is the key. I have also had some great mentors on the way who have shared their wisdom and believed in my abilities. One great piece of advice I have received from one of them was to be bold, say yes to opportunities and apply for interesting roles even if I didn’t check 100% of all the boxes. No need to be perfect. If you don’t apply you will never get the roles you want. 

My own career path has been long and varied and each job on this journey has been a different kind of a learning experience. It has of course not always been smooth sailing. I have encountered various issues over the years that may or may not have been because of my gender. To be fair I have also received a lot of help and also asked for it. Without the support of other people like great bosses and colleagues, my partner and family and even the Finnish system that provided excellent and affordable childcare it would have been much harder.  I have tried my best to pay that forward by being an ally and by supporting for example young professionals and LGBTIQ+ colleagues. In 2023 I received the Workplace Pride Ally of the Year Impact Award which was of course a huge honor. Even more important for me personally was the fact that I was nominated by my Kemira colleagues for this award and really felt that my support and allyship had been appreciated.  It is also a reminder how important visible leadership support is for advancing inclusion, in this particular case for our Kemira LGBTIQ+ community but that applies to everyone else equally. 

What can women and LGBTIQ+ community members (and every other underrepresented group in leadership) do to overcome the obstacles and advance to the leadership? Invest in education and continue learning and developing throughout your careers. Stay up with trends and keep enhancing skill sets. Build strong professional networks. Seek mentors and sponsors who can give guidance and open doors. Connect with and support others. Drive change at the workplace and join companies who make DEI a priority. Develop leadership skills such as strategic thinking or communication. Be bold and curious, speak up, learn to negotiate and to be assertive. Ask for help and say yes to new challenges. Take on high-visibility projects and roles. And always foster an inclusive environment once you have made it to the leadership and be an ally to others. 

Terhi Kivinen

Chief Communications Officer, Kemira Oyj

1. Women in the Workplace 2023 report | McKinsey

2. LGBTQ leaders speak out and look ahead | McKinsey

3.  Workforce diversity boosts performance (blackrock.com)