By Molly D. Shepard

For over 10 years, I have been informally surveying senior women in business across the country to get their opinions around what is preventing them from entering into the executive ranks and C-suites of their organizations. The pace of upward movement for women in corporate America has been glacial in the last 10 years, but the desire on their part to continue to grow in their leadership and take on more responsibility has flourished in contrast. The wonderful women I have spoken with – from California to New York – are extremely accomplished, educated, credible and aspirational. They have been thoughtful and objective in their responses to the question “why have more women not advanced further?”. What I perceived from their answers is that there are three major obstacles to success – each of which contain many sub-factors that are significant.

The first challenge is the ORGANIZATION.
Let’s begin by reflecting on how long women have been in the workforce. We took our places at machines and in factories when our husbands, partners and sons went to war in World War II. Many of us didn’t leave the workforce and many more of us reared children and girls to aspire to be financially independent and fulfilled by work that went beyond just raising children and taking care of them. If anyone were to say that women have not earned through tenure their place in leadership, they would be wrong and it would be negated by the 70+ years of us working. Women are now over 50% of the workforce. Yes, they are bunched in management positions, but based on their skills, accomplishments and abilities are ready and willing to enter into the more senior leadership roles in their companies. Only 4.8% of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 are female so there still is a lot of room to grow.

The women I have spoken to, which by now is in the thousands, have assured me that raising children has not been a significant factor in being overlooked. They, in large part, did not step aside or down when starting a family. Having a child will make a woman and her partner reflect on time management issues and priorities, but it has not been the singular reason that women give for their difficulty in advancing.

Companies are slowly stepping up to the reality of the new world in which we live. Flexible work hours, open space offices and longer maternity leaves, as well as paternity leaves and family leave for other family obligations, are on the rise. The companies that are most concerned with the recruitment and retention of talent have to open up their hearts and minds to accommodating the more decisive and outspoken demands of the Millennial generation. That is where the future talent lies as the Boomers march onto retirement.

However, these important steps taken by companies have not been able to eradicate the gender bias that exists when it comes to promotions, new assignments, risky ventures and opportunities where there’s a deeper comfort in assigning a lesser qualified man to a high-stakes job then the perceived high risk inherent in giving the position to a woman, no matter her qualifications. Fewer companies than we would think have not prioritized diversity and inclusion as one of their top business priorities. This is in spite of the fact that more and more research indicates that companies with more gender diversity at the top do significantly better, i.e. over 23% all the way up to over 30% depending upon the study in return in equity and profitability.

There are two ingredients to changing a culture from one of exclusion to one of inclusion and that is: 1) when the CEO makes it a top priority for the company, and 2) when there is true leverage to encourage/mandate managers and leaders to exhibit openness and support for women and people of diverse backgrounds. The only way to measure it is through number of hires and promotions – and in this case, numbers really count! There are a few companies that ‘walk the talk’ and should stand out as examples of what can happen when leadership makes diversity and inclusion a priority. KPMG, an enormous global consulting firm, is not only an example of a company that has expressed both inside and outside its deep commitment to women, but also now has a woman CEO. The elevation of women partners and the budget and dedication to their women’s groups and other affinity groups are just part of their commitment to ensuring gender diversity at the top of their organization.

The second challenge for women in business is MEN in the workplace.
In my experience as a leadership development coach, I don’t see men in most cases maliciously trying to either compromise or prevent women from rising up in the ranks of their teams and organizations. Rather, their view of the world and women within it has not changed in large part over the years. Unconscious bias has not been successfully addressed and resides in most companies at the leadership level. As a result, those at the helm unconsciously perceive that women are not ready or equipped to take on the high-powered jobs at the top. Whether it is a perception that women belong in the softer skills areas of industry like Law, Human Resources or Finance or just a misunderstanding of a woman’s strengths and what she can offer the organization, it is not clear. But when a woman comes up for a senior role, it is often the opinion of leadership that either her family commitments would exclude her from consideration or she doesn’t have the ‘grit’ or the toughness to drive the business forward.

Research indicates that the differences biologically between men and women would make it naturally difficult for men to fully appreciate the way women can look at a problem, dissect the challenge, explore the long-term implications of a decision, listen to all opinions, collaborate with others to ensure the best solution and generally collaborate to come to a decision. For most men, this takes valuable time. The irony is that it can lead to a better and more profitable outcome. The impatience that men may have with the thinking style of a woman can play a major role in her non-selection for senior leadership. A man’s appreciation for a woman’s unique and natural leadership skills is important.

The third challenge for women is WOMEN themselves.
There is lots of discussion as to whether it’s a woman’s socialization, schooling, parenting or DNA that makes her so significantly different from men that she is not being afforded the opportunity to sit at the table. The bottom line is that women have skills and strengths both learned and biological to offer a company at the highest ranks. Because women use both sides of their brains, they can look at a problem from both a short-term and long-term perspective, determine how a customer might react to a change in service, product or strategy and build consensus around a more strategic decision. All of this takes much longer than a man might take if he is using only his left brain which is more linear and logical but lacks the emotional quotient (EQ). So women do need to adjust their leadership and communication styles to make their voice more easily heard.

Even more importantly, women need to shore up their self-confidence even in difficult situations where they’re being confronted, criticized, or in some cases bullied and not back off from participation. A bad day, a harsh rebuke or a bad pitch doesn’t erase all of the accomplishments that might have gotten her to where she is. Women need to remind themselves how good they are all the time. They also need to create visibility for themselves so that the decision-makers and influencers in their organizations know who they are, what they can do and more importantly, what they want to do. It is not fair that a decision might be made about a woman’s future because some people think she’s either too encumbered with family obligations or not interested that they make a decision for her without asking. This means the woman must make it very clear how far she will go to take a new job, assignment or a risk. All this requires the ability to self-promote in a comfortable way her skills and accomplishments. There should be no question in anybody’s mind as to what a very talented woman can and will do for her company.

These three wedges of conflict need to be addressed by people who are thoughtfully looking at their future talent needs and recognizing that women now are over 50% of the workforce. Men need to understand that as good global leaders, they should have diverse teams so that they bring out the best and most well thought out decisions in their meetings. And women need to step up by speaking up and out, strategically network, examine their leadership presence and manage their careers better!