September 7, 2011: By Margie Warrell contributed to Forbes magazine
Is There A Problem? Yes, there’s a problem: Why aren’t we seeing more women at the top?
Women graduate from college at a rate of 3 to 2 over men and make up almost half of our workforce. They (we!) also make great leaders. Women bring strengths and perspectives that complement men and improve the outcomes of the decisions being made. We are naturally perceptive, empathetic and collaborative. Yet look at the number of women who’ve ascended to the top rung of the corporate ladder in the Fortune 500 corporations and you will quickly see that, despite all the progress of the last fifty years, women still have a long way to go.
Women sit at the helm in only 12 Fortune 500 companies (down from 15 just a year) but even more unsettling is that one-quarter of those corporations do not have any women on their boards. Notta one!
This is not only disconcerting for many women (and many men too); it’s also bad for business. Numerous research studies, including one by McKinsey (“A Business Case for Women”), have found that having more women seated at the decision-making tables improves bottom-line profitability. More women in senior leadership roles isn’t just beneficial for women, it’s good for the men in our lives as well.
So What’s the Cause?
There are myriad complex and intertwining reasons put forward to explain why
so few women are making it into senior leadership roles. A leading one is that
during the period of life (5-15 years post college) when men are earning their
leadership stripes, many women are having children. And while a growing number
of women choose to continue pursuing their career, many others elect to opt out
of the demanding kids-clients-career juggling act. There is nothing inherently
right or wrong in either choice. At least women now have a choice to make.
Barriers Beyond Babies?
Beyond life-style choices, there are still other barriers limiting the ascendance of women up the leadership ranks to c-suite positions. A Wall Street Journal Task Force highlighted some earlier this year. Where men are promoted on potential, women are promoted on performance. Where men have many role models to look up to, women have very few. And where men are often put into roles with P&L responsibilities early on in their careers, women are more likely to be moved into support roles like HR. And of course, while there’s been significant effort made by many companies to provide more family-friendly facilities and options, women in leadership roles must still deal with a lack of flexibility in
managing the often conflicting demands of career and child raising.
Women’s Self-Imposed Barriers?
Clearly structural problems, institutional mind-sets and life-style choices
can be attributed to some of the failure of women to break through that
proverbial “glass ceiling.” However, my experience working with women in middle
management roles to more seasoned leaders with c-suite aspirations, has led me
to believe that many women are still unwittingly holding themselves back,
confining themselves to a “glass cage” through their own thinking. After losing
the Democratic nomination in 2008, Hilary Clinton said in her concession speech
that “There are eighteen million cracks in the hardest of glass ceilings and the
light is shining through.” From where I stand, the light is now streaming
through, despite the barriers women still face, and cracking that ceiling open
once and for all will demand women to courageously challenge both the
perspectives they bring into the workplace and the actions they are willing to
take to grow their leadership ability.
Mindset: a fundamental shift into a leader mindset
Capacity: intentionally cultivating habits that build resilience and grow
Courage: a willingness to step into difficult conversations with greater
candor and boldness
Change #1: Shift Into a Leader Mindset
How we see ourselves determines how others see us. Creating a vision that
includes the type of impact we want to make 5 and even 25 years from now acts as
Expanding our leadership vision will require challenging our leadership
stereotypes. As Judy Rosener Ph.D. wrote recently in Forbes, it has long been assumed that “to be a leader is to be a male.” When I speak to groups of women and ask them to picture a leader in their mind, about two thirds of say they still think of a man. And
in my work with women in leadership roles I still find women doubt themselves,
underestimate their ability and second guess their decisions more than their
male counterparts. While I’ve met numerous men whose egos have written checks
their competence could not cash, I’ve rarely met a woman guilty of an
over-inflated sense of her ability. Rather I’ve met countless women who
underestimate their unique value and question their ability to accomplish on the
grand scale they would like. Women have to think bigger to be bigger.
Change #2: Build Your Resilience and Leadership Capacity
The higher we climb as a leader, the weightier the demands placed upon us.
Add to that the “do more with less” pressures of an increasingly competitive
global economy, the additional responsibilities of raising children (which still
fall largely on the woman’s shoulders), not to mention other commitments outside
the workplace, and it explains why so many women feel like they are in the midst
of a tug-of-war, being pulled in multiple conflicting directions at once. We
must become more intentional about doing those things inside our control so that
we can respond better to those which aren’t.
At the core of capacity building is resilience, something that can be broken down to four core dimensions:
- physical (stamina, energy and health)
- mental (focus, perspective, alignment of priorities and adaptability)
- emotional (optimism, confidence and constructive responses to challenges
- spiritual (connection to a larger sense of purpose)
Research in resilience psychology has found that resilience isn’t so much a
quality we are born with, but a capacity we are born to build. Building
resilience also enables us to respond with greater agility and flexibility.
While some situations may be best dealt with by taking the helm and forcing our
agenda, others may be better served by a softer, less assertive and more
Change #3: Be Courageous in Conversation
Women, are naturally more attuned to the emotions of others, are generally
strong in many of the dimensions of emotional intelligence – the foremost
predictor of leadership success. Too often though we allow the emotion of fear
to keep us from engaging in the conversations needed to build value, manage
expectations, address contentious issues and expand our network of
Make bold requests: Whether it is a big promotion
or simply additional support, women are less inclined than men to ask for what
they really want. Numerous clients in senior leadership roles have shared with
me that for every young twenty-something woman that comes to them to seek career
advice and discuss advancement opportunities, they are approached by three young
men, who are usually much quicker to blow their own horn and ask for a promotion
outright. The fact that men may have a clearer vision for their long term career
(one that doesn’t involve time at home with young children) may explain part of
this. But I believe that they are simply more confident and comfortable in
asking for what they want, and less concerned that they may seem pushy, overly
assertive or even be rejected.
Speak Candidly: Many women also tend to feel less confident when it comes to expressing their opinion if they think it may ruffle feathers or put them at risk of confrontation. While it’s important to be mindful about what we say, withholding our opinion for fear that it might be scoffed at or rock the boat deprives us of the opportunity to demonstrate our value and leadership strength.
Say No: Women are wired to be care-takers, and while some women have mastered the art of a gracious “No,” many women struggle to do so. We want to take care of our friendships, be that reliable person our co-workers and friends can count on to pitch in, turn up, and help out. But what we often forget is that every time we say yes to something, it means, by default, we are saying no to something else.
As more women raise their leadership sights and step through the “Do I have
what it takes?” doubts, we will witness profound changes emanating from the top
in business, government, and public life. Women like Sandra Day O’Conner, Oprah
Winfrey and Condoleeza Rice will no longer be such anomalies and women like
Indra Nooyi (CEO of PepsiCo), Irene Rosenfeld (CEO of Kraft), and Anne Mulcahy
(CEO of Xerox) will have more women to keep them company, enabling them to bring
the benefits of genuine diversity to the fore.
Yes, women make great leaders. And in today’s increasingly competitive and
rapid-fire world, the attributes that women bring to leadership are more
valuable than ever—for individuals, families, and organizations, and in the
larger context, for social justice and economic prosperity. And from the women
I know who have found their way to the other side of that glass ceiling, I am
convinced that as more women ascend to the top rungs of power we will see that
women will not be changed by that power, but will instead change the nature of
it. That will not only be good for women in hometown America. It will be good
for women, and for the fine men we share our lives with, the world over—from New
York to New Guinea, Afghanistan to Ethiopia, and everywhere in between.
Margie Warrell is a bestselling author, executive life coach, media personality, and frequent keynote speaker who empowers women globally to live and lead more courageously. Author of Find Your Courage:12 Acts for Becoming Fearless in Work and in Life (McGraw-Hill), Margie is a regular commentator and media guest on major television networks. To receive her free LIVE BOLDLY! Newsletter, or to learn about other programs that support your living more courageously, please visit www.margiewarrell.com.