What’s Holding Women Back?

There has been a resurgence in the conversation about how women are faring in the corporate environment and, in particular, around the gender pay gap and how long it will take to achieve true parity in the workforce (despite our best efforts!).

In 2008, The Leader’s Edge launched the Executive Leadership Institute for Women in partnership with the global accounting and advisory firm KPMG and has since conducted programs across the country for senior level women seeking to enhance their leadership effectiveness. The program runs yearly in Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. and soon in Richmond. We asked the hundreds of executive women participating in these cities the following question: “Why haven’t more women advanced into leadership roles?” This question always follows a brief synopsis of the power women hold in the marketplace, such as women making over 85% of all healthcare decisions, purchasing over 80% of all consumer products as well as controlling 60% of personal wealth – so the irony that women haven’t progressed much professionally over the last 15 years is striking in comparison.

From our experience in coaching both female and male executives, we already know there are distinct differences in the leadership style and innate proclivities of each gender which, if misunderstood, could be problematic in a woman’s climb to the top. But we wanted to get to the heart of the matter and see what the ambitious and accomplished women participating in the Institute have experienced themselves, or what challenges they have seen their female colleagues face. Here are the most common themes coming from these in-depth discussions about challenges in the workplace.

Few Female Role Models

It has only been in the last two decades that women leaders have really made a name for themselves in the c-suite. High-profile executives like Sheryl Sandberg, Meg Whitman, and Mary Barra are a few names that come to mind, but women leader role models have been in short supply. Even today, the number of women holding senior executive positions is still roughtly 25% in our largest companies and only 8.2% of CEO positions in S&P 500 companies. Many women leaders who have been successful have not held a hand out to those below them – from either fear, ambivalence or lack of empathy – further compounding the problem. Many of the women from the Institute even preferred a supportive male role model than a woman who doesn’t champion other women.

Sponsorship Is Key

Sponsorship is another major factor cited by Institute participants as to why women still face an uphill battle. There is a need for more men and women who are willing to sponsor their peers and direct and indirect reports. Sponsors are those who will advocate for someone – even when they’re not in the room. This relationship is one of the most important to have if your goal is to advance to another role or be considered for new opportunities both internally and externally. Women need to identify at least two sponsors who are key decision makers and let them know what they have done as well as where they want to go in their careers so when their name comes up in a meeting where they are not present, there are people ready to support them for important new projects, initiatives and promotions.

Lack of Visibility Within the Organization

Women don’t jump up and down about their successes – at least in an organizational setting. They tend to keep their heads down and let their work speak for itself. But what women need to realize is that self-promoting and sharing accomplishments helps build both visibility and credibility in the organization. It is through building a comfort in promoting skills and accomplishments that women gain confidence in themselves and with others in order to be considered for choice assignments or to be identified for a promotion.  

At the executive level, women have already proved that they are good at the work they do. The next step is to consider their network as their next promotion will most likely be due to their relationships with influencers and decision makers. Women need to take the time to understand the power dynamic that exists at their company by figuring out who their critical stakeholders are and how they can help accomplish their career goals. Once women have considered their stakeholders, it is important to set up meetings with them to share their accomplishments and goals in order to advance.

Not Appearing Strategic

Participants expressed frustration with being passed up for assignments or projects and did not understand why. In our experience in coaching senior women we have found that too often women appear to be more tactical than strategic, especially in their language. They are good at reporting on how their team and area of responsibility is doing, but fail to weave their accomplishments into the overall vision and goals of their organization. Their language is more tactical than strategic and this lack of high-level conversation gives the perception of being more junior. Think about your own behaviors: are you arriving early enough to meetings in order to hear the pre-meeting conversation that often reveals the real objective of the meeting?; Do you pull out a notebook and pen at the onset of a meeting to take notes giving the perception that you are the scribe?; And do you always volunteer to handle the tactical issues that need to be done? These nuanced behaviors can erode your credibility as a strategic player in the organization and convey to others that you are less senior than your male colleagues.

Lack of Flexibility

Women may drop out of the workforce temporarily or choose to plateau their careers because of the overwhelming amount of responsibilities they have at home. They may walk away from a great job opportunity or not apply because they don’t feel that they have the time and energy to be a primary caretaker while taking on a new assignment. Institute participants cited many examples of colleagues who found it too difficult to say ‘no’ to family responsibilities and deferred to their partners’ opportunities instead. When companies don’t provide workplace flexibility to adapt to the needs of parents, the stress can be too great for women to compete for a more high-powered job. Interestingly, there can be a lack of support when a woman decides to do the opposite and continue her path as the breadwinner. The controversy over Marissa Mayer returning to Yahoo two weeks after her first child and less than a month after she gave birth to twins is a perfect example of our society still being too hard on women when they make courageous decisions about the care for their families.

Because women aren’t necessarily leaving the workforce because of their families, but because of the lack of flexibility that their companies allow, it is imperative as a leader at your organization to think how flexible work schedules, part-time opportunities, and a virtual workplace could help positively impact your corporation and all employees. Overall, most men haven’t faced this difficult decision of caring for family versus returning to work, although that is changing with the increase in popularity among large companies to offer paternity leave to their employees. If both men and women have the same opportunities for paid family leave, the key is for them to feel comfortable with taking the time off that they need without fearing repercussions from their organizations.

Gender’s Effect on Leadership

As the women from the Institute discussed the themes that were most prevalent to holding women back from leadership roles, the common link between each discussion point was gender. Men play an important role in holding women back whether they realize it or not. Whereas some men are more comfortable with women leading in a strategic setting, they may not be doing their part to stand up to others and advocate for women.

Are we playing a different game than the men? Or, is it that men feel uncomfortable when an influential female leader enters the room? The answers might not be that simple. In fact, responsibility needs to be placed on both sides of the spectrum. In many situations, women aren’t contributing to the light (and appropriate) banter that men indulge in at work and come off as cold or unfriendly. Men typically take to networking more naturally, whereas women see it as a challenge and an interference with their other responsibilities. Women may not be asked to play golf or go out for a beer after work and, if asked, may not want to. Women may not ask for new assignments or promote their capabilities as well as the men. Most importantly, women may not prioritize networking as high as other work tasks and miss out on critical conversations and relationships as a result.

The trends we discussed with the participants of the Institute were the same regardless of industry, region or the size of the company – there were executives from global companies to small firms representing many industries from telecommunications, manufacturing, consumer, pharmaceutical and defense. Women are still being excluded from critical networks and jobs and with the importance of what a women offers in the workplace in terms of diversity of thought and strong leadership skills and the need for smart high-level talent in our organizations, this is untenable. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the pressures and challenges they face in the workplace, women need to take time to make a plan for their professional development.

Here are a few things a woman can do to start to find balance and advance her career:

  • Find an executive coach to enhance leadership skills and behaviors
  • Reach out to a mentor for advice and feedback
  • Identify two key sponsors who will advocate for you
  • Get involved on a board and increase both internal and external visibility
  • Speak at conferences and trade associations or share your experiences in an article in a trade journal or on LinkedIn
  • Speak out and promote your accomplishments and advocate for your fellow female colleagues

Tips for Success

1.     Build a personal board of directors – Your board should include people you trust and are comfortable turning to when the difficult conversations and decisions arise. Use their guidance and support and help other women by doing the same for them.

2.     Connect with critical stakeholders both inside and outside of the office – Build strategic relationships that can be mutually beneficial down the line. Be confident in your abilities, and share your ambitions and aspirations with those that can have the greatest impact on your future, but do so in a way that feels authentic to your personality. The key is to keep your network top of mind and continue to grow those relationships. The larger and more strategic your network is, the more advocates there will be for you, which results in a greater likelihood that you’ll be considered for that next promotion or new role.

3.     Be confident in your interactions and appreciate that you have something to offer – If you are being excluded from networking opportunities, speak up and let others know that you want to be included next time they plan a golf trip, or even when they head out of the office for lunch.

4.     Think about what work-life balance means to you and reevaluate your priorities – Sometimes work may take precedence, sometimes family does and know that you aren’t the only one who feels torn between the two. If you are sacrificing too much of something that you consider a priority, it may be time to find a new job, or simply, time to reflect and consider what next steps will positively impact your situation.

5.     Adjust your language and style of networking – Use the first five minutes to chat with the people around you before a meeting begins and make those conversations intentional. Even though your schedule is hectic, avoid running back to your desk once the meeting is over. Take the time to be part of the debrief discussion and take advantage of this extra time with coworkers.