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The 6 Core Reasons Women Aren’t Advancing to Leadership Roles

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As a trainer and leadership developer of women, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of HR and senior executive leaders the past 10 years, about women, growth, and paving the way for women’s ascension to leadership in corporate America. Yet what remains so disappointing and in fact, shocking, is that despite the irrefutable business case for the need to balance corporate leadership ranks with more women, we’re making very little headway – very little progress in the way of effective corporate change is occurring.  Yes there are winners of Catalyst and other awards – and great, progressive organizations doing their part – but in the whole of corporate America, we’re not seeing the substantive change that’s necessary. Further, recent studies show that senior women are hit three times harder than their male counterparts in these tough economic times.

I believe there are 6 core reasons why women aren’t advancing to the leadership ranks to the degree we need them to in corporate America.  One of the most important factors is that organizations are not digging deep enough to uncover exactly why their organization isn’t fostering women leaders successfully.  Leaders and HR directors attempt to address the issue every day, and they commit diversity dollars, initiatives, training programs and networking events to moving the needle, but rarely have the hard data, research and findings from men and women in the organization as to why women are leaving before they reach leadership levels, why they are plateauing or not being promoting effectively into leadership. Thus, their programs and initiatives don’t make a lasting difference.

Before I share what I believe are the 6 reasons why women aren’t leading in sufficient numbers, I’d like to ask HR staff and senior leaders this question:

Do you know (based on sound research and data and frank and open conversations at your company) EXACTLY why women are not sitting at your leadership tables in your organization? Do you have a handle on the specific part of the pipeline where you lose women, and why?  If not, what step can you take this month to investigate as thoroughly as possible the barriers to women’s leadership success at your company? (For resources and innovative ideas on how to move the needle, check out Bentley University’s Center for Women & Business cutting-edge programs and events).

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, the very first thing you must do is begin a research and data gathering initiative – conduct a thorough, candid, and probing exploration of what isn’t happening that needs to be, and determine the barriers to women’s growth that are specific to your organization, culture, and enterprise.

To get you started in your thinking, below are the top 6 reasons I’ve found for why women aren’t leading as we need them to in corporate business, based on my 10 years of work in the field, my year-long research study, my book Breakdown, Breakthrough, my Career Success training programs and my leadership consulting.

The top six reasons why women aren’t leading in sufficient numbers are:

1)  The differences between men and women are not fully understood or valued.

It’s an indisputable fact – women and men are different in many core ways, grounded in their neurobiology and their cultural training.  (Read Dr. Louann Brizendine’s books The Female Brain and The Male Brain for more info).  So much of men and women’s behavior is programmed, hard-wired in our brains, and also culturally influenced.  I’ve found, however, that in corporate America (which remains male-dominated at the leadership levels), the differences in women’s style, approach, communication, decision making, leadership values, focus and “energy,” are not at all understood or valued.  Many organizations still make women “wrong” (consciously or subconsciously) for their priorities and styles that clash with the dominant culture.  Further, the emphasis many women leaders place on connection, empathy, emotional cue-taking, consensus-building, risk-taking, mutuality, and questioning are often misconstrued as a “less-than” leadership style.  More multicultural and diversity training must occur for women and men to wholly embrace their differences, and understand that it is diversity and difference that makes us stronger and more competitive.

2)  Whole-self authenticity is a must-have for many women, yet impossible still in many corporate environments.

During a class I taught at New York University last summer on managing inclusion and cultural diversity, my students and I discussed the idea of bringing our whole hearts and spirits to our work and our careers – the idea that authenticity and transparency, and being who we really are – and being recognized and appreciated for that — is a vitally important criteria for our career success. A fascinating finding emerged – literally every woman in the class was in complete accord – that authenticity and being able to bring our whole selves to our work is essential to our fulfillment and success. (Check out Brené Brown’s great work on authenticity and vulnerability for more on that.)

But the males in the class vehemently disagreed.  They shared their feelings that full transparency at work, and “exposing” all parts of themselves (personal and otherwise) was not at all desirable. They confirmed this with numerous male friends and colleagues, who all agreed that it’s not safe or accepted (or wanted) to be fully transparent and bring their whole selves to the workplace.  I’ve seen this as a commonly held difference between men and women in the workplace, again impacted by cultural training and neurobiology.  (Again, I am fully aware that many men do indeed bring their full, authentic selves to work.) But what’s vital to remember is that, for thousands of women, if they can’t be real, true, transparent, honest and authentic at work – and can’t be recognized, valued and appreciated for what they bring to the table — they won’t want to follow the leadership at the helm or do what it takes to succeed in their organizations or roles. If the political environment is so crushing, and the competitive terrain so negative that work feels like “theatre” and women have to pretend to be something they are not (which it did for me for numbers of years in my corporate life), then it’s not sustainable, and not worth it. Thousands of women are fleeing corporate America and starting their own businesses to escape what isn’t working for them, and also to create new models of business success and leadership that fit their style, preference, values and priorities.

3)  Life, family and work priorities clash fiercely.

Women are still performing the majority of domestic and child care responsibility in the home, even when there are two spouses working full-time.  As such, and as long as women are bearing the children in our species, women will not view child rearing and child care in the same way as men do, and will prioritize the responsibilities around it differently.  The best article I’ve read recently on this dilemma – as a woman, the challenges around how to be the caregiver you want to be while being the contributive professional you long to be – is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. For me, every word resonated.  Slaughter covered every key dimension represented of the challenges women face today in their quest to become business and political leaders while also balancing what they want to be as parents and care-givers, and what has to change in our work policies to allow these dual priorities to be met. If you’re outdated and closed-minded and believe that work-life balance or integration is a pipedream only for fools, then you’re contributing to the problem.

4)  Extreme work demands can drum women out.

The extreme demands of many 24/7 work corporate environments today represent an impasse to many women who wish to prioritize life outside of work more highly.  I’ve written before and believe this wholeheartedly – women are not less ambitious than men.  It is the COST of ambition – and the struggle women face in pursuing their professional ambitions — that is at the heart of why we have so few women leaders today, and why women are achieving less and not reaching as high as men in corporate America.  As Betsy Myers, senior adviser to President Clinton on women’s issues shared with me recently, women tend to view their work as only one piece of the pie that represents their total life experience.  If they’re forced to focus 24/7 on work for a majority of their professional lives, most women will choose not to pay that price.

5)  Marginalizing of women is more common than we want to admit.

As much as we don’t want to admit it, women are still being diminished, sidelined, suppressed, and thought less of because of being women and because they are different from the leadership norm (here’s an example).  Further, women are pushed aside regularly when they make their family priorities known or demand time off after having a child (and don’t kid yourself – this is a form discrimination to be sidelined for prioritizing time off for child bearing).

We can deny this all we want, but it is happening all across corporate America – women are still considered “less than” in terms of leadership capability in many organizations.  This will change in 50 or 100 years, and is changing radically now in the entrepreneurial world (where I’m very excited to be supporting women’s leadership growth), but not fast enough in corporate America.

If your organization still has insufficient representation of women at senior levels, do what is necessary to bring about true change. Conduct primary research at your workplace to uncover what is not working for women in the organization, and follow it up by implementing new policies, procedures, and effective training, education, and programs for men and women.  Measure the efficacy of these programs and initiatives, and communicate effectively and authoritatively the mandate that diversity and inclusion must become a way of life at your organization. Finally, support your successful and empowering female leaders today as true role models who “walk the talk” and can give other women a powerful visual model for success.

6)   Personal accountability needs to be expanded.

I’ve read scores of comments by women (top writers on leadership, for instance) that if we talk about how women are holding themselves back from leadership, we’re again blaming women for how they blew it, instead of understanding that it’s a faulty model they’re trying to overcome.

I disagree with this line of thinking. Yes, the model needs revision most certainly, but this is a complex problem with many contributing factors.  Within this construct, individuals have the power to take accountability, step up to what has to be done, and have the courage to make change, both on the individual level, and the organizational level.  Women are today (and can become) great leaders and inspire other women to follow in their footsteps. I see it every day.

It is not all about the environment or men not doing their part.  There are plenty of strong male advocates and supporters of women, and great male leaders who know how to pave the way for the high growth and engagement of both women and men (for an inspiring example, check out  PricewaterhouseCooper’s Chairman and Senior Partner Robert Moritz’s keynote speech at Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business Forum).   For true change to occur, we need the support of men, and to walk in partnership with our best male leaders.  But to bring about real and lasting change, women must also learn to understand better the terrain they’re operating in — the ecosystem they’re engaged in — and power up their skills and accountability  in order to navigate it successfully.  (No, I’m not saying “Be more like a man.”) I’m suggesting that women understand what’s needed to succeed, and embrace their authentic personal brand, build their confidence and self-worth, enhance their communication, leadership and decision-making skills, forge vital partnerships, and step up to their fullest potential to claim the leadership authority they want.

In the end, creating a pathway for more women in corporate leadership will require change on all levels — individual, organizational and global.  But we must start with you and me, today.  What one step can YOU take – either as a female committed to achieving more leadership authority, or as a female or male leader with the power and influence to bring about true change in your organization.  What will YOU do?

I’d love your thoughts. Does your organization know why women are not serving in leadership as your business needs them to? And do you know what to do to bring yourself forward and lead as you long to?

Busting the Myth That Women Are Less Ambitious Than Men

Image by Jennifer Kumar via Flickr

I’ve heard over and over in the past several years frequent reference to the idea that professional women aren’t as ambitious as men.   Disappointingly, I even heard Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook (whom I deeply admire) mention this reported “lack of ambition” in women on The Charlie Rose show recently. To Mr. Rose she declared, “Until women are ambitious as men, they’re not going to achieve as much as men.”  There have been scores of articles written on the topic, including a 2004 Harvard Business Review piece, “Do Women Lack Ambition?” 

As a very ambitious professional woman who supports the advancement of other ambitious women, I’m truly sick of this myth.  I can tell you, from working with and speaking to thousands of professional women in the past eight years, it’s simply not accurate.  Ambition is not the issue, and lack of ambition is NOT what holds women back.  It’s the COST of ambition – and the struggle women face in pursuing their ambitions — that is at the heart of why we have so few women leaders today, and why women are achieving less and not reaching as high as men in corporate America.

The more we support this incorrect conclusion, the more disservice we do to the advancement of women.  Again, ambition is not the problem; it’s the enormous personal sacrifice women today must make (that men do not have to) in order to reach the top that halts women in their tracks.  And it’s the reality that even when women stay on a traditional career path and do “all the right things” they are unlikely to advance as far or earn as much as their male counterparts (see Catalyst’s recent study The Myth of the Ideal Worker).

Only when we address the root problem that keeps women from their professional ambitions, will we pave the way to greater progress.

 The Cultural Problem with Ambition

As an executive and leadership coach of hundreds of women each year, I know this:  Women do indeed start out their careers with similar levels as men of wanting to be the best and the brightest in their fields.  However, research studies that claim to examine women’s “ambition” as a term and a concept won’t reflect that, because of the complicated nuances and connotations of the word “ambition.” 

A recent study from the Center for Work-Life Policy showed that at the start of their careers, 47% of young women claim to be “very ambitious” vs. 62% of young men.  So we see a difference in self-reported “ambition levels” here even at the beginning of their careers.  I hear from professional women each day that the term “ambitious” has negative connotations for them.  Women shy away from using this term or claiming (or appearing) to be ambitious.  They want to reach the top, but are reluctant to describe themselves as ambitious because they fear it will make them appear arrogant, power-hungry, self-absorbed, with a “win at all costs” mentality.  Unfortunately, their fears are well-founded.  Success and likability are positively correlated in men, and negatively correlated in women (see Sheryl Sandberg’s TEDTALK on why we have so few women leaders and the Heidi vs. Howard Roizen study at Columbia University).  Women must worry about how ambition “looks” because appearing ambitious negatively impacts their success.  Men do not face this challenge.  On the contrary, it is culturally expected and honored for men pursue their highest goals and do what they can to reach their highest success.

But if we were to conduct solid, well-constructed research around the behaviors that make up “ambition” – mastery of a skill and desiring outward recognition for that mastery – we would see that an equal number of professional men and women start out their careers wanting to reach their highest potential and wanting recognition for their achievements.

What Gets in the Way of “Ambition” for Women

As women age, a bigger problem around “ambition” emerges.  In corporate America today, pursuing ambitious goals and outcomes presents deeply challenging choices and personal sacrifices for women that it does not yet generate for men.  Many more women have to sacrifice marriage and children in order to become top leaders, while men do not.

Per a 2010 study of the Center for Work-Life Policy, only 32% of women vs. 47% of men over 40 self-report to be “very ambitious.”  Why? Because the personal and family sacrifices are too great for women to remain on their most ambitious track.  The CWLP study showed that a full 41% of women who actually make it to the executive suite arrive without an intimate partner, and 40% arrive without children.  

In a recent New York Times article A C.E.O.’s Support a ka Husband, the author cites a new study “The New C.E.Os,” that looks at women and minorities who are chief executives.  The study reveals that of the 28 women C.E.O’s of Fortune 500 companies, only eighteen had children. That’s a far lower rate than the 87 percent of married women in the population at large who have children of their own, according to Census data.

The NYT article states:

“Statistics suggest that aspirants to America’s top corporate jobs had better have a spouse, partner or someone else willing to be devoted to the aspirant’s career. “How do you compete without a spouse? Basically, you can’t,” Richard Zweigenhaft said. Mr. Zweigenhaft is professor of psychology at Guilford College in North Carolina and the co-author (with G. William Domhoff) of “The New C.E.Os.”

My research bears this out as well.  Unless women have a solid support network at home, rising to the top is riddled with insurmountable challenges.

What needs to change for women’s ambitions to be achievable?

Women have made far more headway in the workplace than at home.  Women are still judged harshly and even “hated” when viewed as aggressive or highly successful in the workplace.  And the pressure is still enormous on men to succeed at all costs.  Only when our rigid gender roles shift allowing both women and men to honor their authentic choices and longings will we see a change in our current professional and leadership dynamic. 

Women will surpass their current rate of 16% in senior corporate leadership in the U.S. only when:

–  Our society stops putting men down for supporting their wives’ professional ascension (and staying home to care for their children if they choose)

–  Women stop shying away from raising their hands for the most advancement-oriented and ambitious projects, goals and endeavors that will advance their careers

–  Women grow more comfortable displaying behavioral and emotional characteristics of ambition

–  Society grows more comfortable with highly successful women

–  Both men and women shake off the rigid gender role limitations in place today

–  Women stop having to pay a price of success in terms of being less accepted, liked, and supported, and having to sacrifice their family and personal lives

–  Employers start listening to the facts about the current obstacles impeding women’s success, and take powerful, positive action to revise their work cultures

–  And finally, both men and women gain more courage to do what it takes to live and work as they want to. 

In the end, how can professional women reach the highest levels of corporate leadership? 

Stay in the workforce.  Stay true to both your personal and professional goals, and find a way to balance what you need and want most.  Don’t buy into the myth that you’re not as ambitious as your male colleagues.  You are.  If you want to be the best in your field, commit to finding a way to honor what you care about most in your personal and professional life.  If it’s not possible in your current work situation, find another that will support your advancement.

Make it happen.  And ask your employer for effective leadership and executive support and training that will change your existing work culture, and modify how you and others think about women, men and ambition.  It’s up to you.

What’s your biggest obstacle standing in the way of your ambition, and what are you doing about it?

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