Women Leadership Series

Women leaders can bring different skills, creativity, and enthusiasm, lead more engaged teams, and promote inclusivity that helps organizations achieve better results. There is plenty of evidence of women’s benefits to the bottom line.

  • Moody’s Breaking the Bias Report 2022 revealed how gender equality will transform economies, finance, and business. 
  • Only by driving more engaged employees women leaders save their organizations $1.43 million for every 1,000 employees. 
  • The McKenzie study Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, Quoting: “Companies with 30% more women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30, and in turn, these companies were more likely to outperform those with even fewer women executives or none”. 

Despite the business case for more balanced gender representation at the top, many organizations are still falling behind. 

If it is so evident that organizations benefit having more women leaders, why don’t they unlock their full potential? Why don’t women significantly contribute more if they have so much to offer? There are plenty of reasons, and these are some of the most compelling I came across during my research: 

1)   Unconscious Bias and Limited Workplace Support

Making it to the top can seem like an out-of-reach goal, even for the most ambitious women, when they do not have an environment that support their success. Despite the gains in the last decades, leadership traits are considered male attributes. These beliefs perpetuate unequal distribution, access, and progression to leadership roles and positions of power for women. 

There is also a disconnect between companies’ growing commitment to racial equity and the lack of improvement we see in women’s day-to-day experiences, especially for women of color. They face similar types and microaggressions as they did two years ago—and they remain far more likely than White women to be on the receiving end of disrespectful and “othering” behavior.

These biases shape assumptions, perception of leadership skills, and advancement. 

What Organizations Can Do: 

  • Gain senior leadership commitment to increasing gender diversity across your organization.
  • Create policies to safeguard the fair treatment of all employees, regardless of their backgrounds. 
  • Provide Diversity & Inclusion Training to Leaders to increase the organization’s awareness of inclusiveness. 
  • Commit to create inclusive practices embracing feminine leadership and an environment supportive of women’s success.

2)   Barriers to Attract Women Leaders to Apply to Jobs:

There are gender differences in the way women approach career transitions. Even if they look for better opportunities, they tend to be more cautious in their search approach. Also, they might have misconceptions about the recruitment process, as described in this Harvard Business Review article. Most women believe they must meet all the qualifications to apply for jobs. The reality is that they could still succeed in advocating for their candidacy. Men tend to leverage their connections more than women, obtaining more referrals that put them in front of hiring managers. LinkedIn undertook research around recruitment practices impacting gender. Women get discouraged when they see job postings that are too long, highlight masculine attributes, or fail to describe diversity and inclusion agendas. 

What Organizations Can Do: 

  • Audit the organization’s recruitment practices that could disqualify female job candidates deliberately or indirectly or treat them unfavorably. 
  • When posting jobs, be mindful of tone; write like a human. Avoid gendered language and audit your job ads for gender bias. 

3)   Limited Female Talent Pipelines:

When organizations are not proactive in attracting female candidates for future needs, they tend to lack a robust pipeline to feed leadership roles. Today, nearly 60% of bachelor’s and master’s degrees are awarded to women, suggesting there is no shortage of qualified women entering the pipeline. Although women now enter professional schools at rates nearly equal to men, they are less likely to reach their career potential. They face disparities in expectations that penalize individuals with caretaking responsibilities and other career obstacles deterring women from sticking in the workplace.

Fewer women tend to stay longer in STEM careers, including technology. A 2016 National Center for Women & Information Technology study found that two-thirds of women in tech quit within fifteen years, creating a vacuum for women in tech organizations. 

McKenzie’s report highlights that it is more difficult when they double ‘onlys’, meaning they are the only people of their race and gender in their team. These women endure difficult day-to-day experiences, subjecting them to more discrimination, biases, and pressures to perform. 

What Organizations Can Do: 

  • Deploy recruiting strategies to attract more female candidates in the future, such as expanding the early-in-career talent funnel to focus on recruiting from a broader set of schools and organizations, targeting female candidates from under represented backgrounds. 
  • Ensure your employment practices are not disparately impacting women. For example, changing working hours could make it impossible for women to continue working. 
  • Provide flexible work arrangements and family-friendly benefits to ease the burden for caregiver women. 
  • Create accountability and consequences for unfair treatment in the workplace.

4)   Barriers to Promote Women to Leadership Roles:

The Harvard Business Review article points out that, due to bias in some work environments, women need to meet more of the qualifications to be hired than their male counterparts. For instance, a McKinsey report found that men are often hired or promoted based on their potential, experience, and track record. If women have watched that occur in their workplaces, it makes perfect sense they’d be less likely to apply for a job for which they didn’t meet the qualifications.

Yale study found that women tend to receive lower potential ratings than men. The criteria to assess potential tends to be subjective and based on masculine traits. The higher the woman is, the lower the potential score tends to be, making it much harder for women to attain the highest roles in the organization. In a few words, women are not rising because managers underestimate their potential. 

Another well-known bias is that women are less ambitious than men. A study by Catalyst revealed that women are not less ambitious. They want the top jobs; they don’t get them. 

Many women passed over for promotions do not receive concrete feedback on why they didn’t make it. It is disheartening for them not to receive helpful information that helps them better prepare for future opportunities. It also questions in their minds the validity of the selection process and if there was favoritism involved. 

What Organizations Can Do: 

  • Review your compensation strategy and promotional guidelines to identify barriers to promoting women. Check and balance your talent development practices assessing women’s potential fairly. 
  • Commit to including multiple female candidates for roles, making gender-inclusive hiring the standard. Chances are, if there is only one woman candidate for a position, she will not be the chosen one.
  • Provide timely and constructive feedback that will increase readiness for future roles.

5)   Limited Opportunities for Leadership Development  

Most leadership development programs exist to prepare high-potential employees for leadership roles. If fewer women are considered high potential, fewer women participate in leadership development. 

Even when nominated for such scarce opportunities, very few organizations create training specifically for women in leadership roles that could better help them navigate their unique challenges and prepare them for more senior positions. 

Women were likelier to self-advocate for participation in leadership development programs than being nominated by their managers.

What Organizations Can Do: 

  •  Make sure you offer equitable opportunities for company-sponsored training programs. Consider adding options for leadership development that address the specific needs of women leaders. 
  • Provide women with developmental assignments that expand their skillsets for current and future roles. 
  • Ensure the selection criteria for formal training and development opportunities do not penalize or exclude women, particularly women of color. 

6)   Lack of Allyship or Sponsorship from Top Management 

Women tend to lack mentorship and sponsorship compared to men. This lack of support holds women back in their careers by giving fewer recommendations for the jobs that will springboard them into high-level positions.  

The lack of visibility at the highest levels hurt many women. Even when they occasionally have an opportunity to attend meetings with senior leaders, they might lack the confidence, presence, or communication skills to create solid impressions. 

While more white employees see themselves as allies to women of color, they are no longer likely to speak out against discrimination, mentor, sponsor women of color, or take other actions to advocate for them. Women of color are usually excluded from informal networks that enhance skills and provide valuable insights into organizational politics. 

What Organizations Can Do: 

  • Implement formal mentorship programs targeting women. Help women to gain access to sponsorship opportunities from top management. 
  • Encourage women leaders to increase their visibility and ensure they are included in formal and informal networking to help them create relevant connections across the organization. 
  • Be willing to recommend more women for leadership opportunities and encourage their participation in relevant task forces, committees, and other collaboration forms outside their ascribed teams.

7)   Organizational Culture and Leadership Models 

Culture and leadership are closely intertwined. A positive culture should be the foundation of an organization, but we know this is not always the case. It’s no surprise that men and women differ in their leadership styles. But even when they do the same thing, they are often perceived differently. When organizations reinforce certain leadership styles, they normalize them, even when they alienate women. 

Women who aspire to leadership positions often are unsure if they should adopt certain management styles or embrace their own. While embracing others’ leadership styles leads to discomfort and feels limiting to an individual, not embracing an organization’s accepted style may lead to exclusion and isolation. These dynamics might deter women from aspiring to leadership roles. Ironically, women who voice their lack of interest in leadership tracks are considered to lack ambition and are assessed with less potential, limiting their opportunities for vertical growth. 

Women might notice how women leaders in their organizations face more opposition. They might wonder if others want them in a leadership role and, therefore, if they would receive support. Research conducted by ccl.org unfolded the high tenacity required for the long and challenging leadership journey women face once they rise.

What Organizations Can Do: 

  •  Audit your current leadership framework to identify potential bias toward male leadership standards. 
  • Prioritize Leadership Development by broadening the definition to the ability to influence others. If more women acquire business and leadership skills, they will have more chances to rise.
  • Encourage career conversations to deeply explore the hidden dynamics deterring women from pursuing leadership paths. 

8)   Unequal Pay 

The gender pay gap is still a huge problem for organizations that want to be more inclusive. This gap reflects how women are valued in the workforce compared to men.

Despite more awareness about the inequalities in pay between men and women, gender pay gap improvements slowed during the Pandemic. The pay gap is worse for women of color and women ages 45 and older. “Because women earn less, on average, than men, they must work longer for the same pay, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of women’s and civil rights organizations.

The latest data on women’s pay presents a mixed picture. Going into 2022, women earn 82 cents for every $1 man makes when comparing all women to all men—a stat that is unchanged from 2021, according to compensation data and software firm Payscale’s 2022 State of the Gender Pay Gap Report, released March 15. Female executives have been brought into organizations at a lower level than their male counterparts, meaning they had to invest more time to get to the same level as their male peers.

What Organizations Can Do: 

  • Audit your compensation practices to assess the level of pay inequity. 
  • Implement strategies to mitigate gender compensation gaps. It is illegal to pay similarly qualified men or women different wages for similar work, even when the ones involved have other job titles. 
  • Become intentional about monitoring the compensation of women of color. 

9) Glass Cliffs

Another barrier to women’s leadership was the glass cliff when women reported being offered leadership “opportunities” in no-win roles. Sometimes the leadership roles or challenges came without sufficient resources or were structured in a way that made failure more likely. In a separate study, FTSE 100 Index companies were more likely to appoint women to their boards following an extended period of poor stock market performance. These precarious, high-risk leadership roles create problems for women, as a high-profile failure in a leadership role can derail their careers. “Having women in glass cliff positions can help reinforce gender stereotypes that women aren’t good at leadership,” 

What Organizations Can Do: 

  •  Create awareness that the glass cliff exists by providing education around the topic. 
  • Determine to what extend your organization has promoted these type of lose-lose arrangements for women, particularly, women of color.
  • Be committed to offering female leaders fair developmental opportunities and assignments that will set them for success. 

10)  Limited Pipeline of Women Managers to Promote 

We also know that having women of color in prominent company roles is good for the bottom line. The problem is that, to date, companies have not been great at promoting women of color to the highest levels of their organizations. 

Women’s representation has increased across the pipeline since 2016. However, women—especially women of color—remain significantly underrepresented in leadership. The Pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women. Out of the 64 million that lost their jobs in 2020, women held by women were 1.8 times more vulnerable. 29% of women surveyed reduced their hours during the Pandemic. A survey from Indeed revealed that 9% of women left the workforce only in the last year alone. 

 According to McKenzie, women continue to face a broken rung at the first step up to manager: for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. As a result, men outnumber women significantly at the manager level, so there are far fewer women to advance to higher levels. The broken rung likely explains why the representation of women at the senior manager, director, and vice-president levels has improved more slowly than the pipeline overall.

Organizations Can Do: 

  •  Create career paths that purposely target women for mid-management roles. Monitor the level of engagement of your current women leaders to assess any potential retention risks. 
  • Provide women leaders with targeted development support, such as leadership coaching and mentoring programs.  
  • Review those women who successfully developed and progressed beyond individual contributors and first-line management to extract the success factors to help more women

As I have extensively described in this article, there are multiple reasons why we do not have enough women leaders who can tap into their potential to expand their impact on the bottom line.

Gender equity is a systemic issue, and real change requires involving the whole organization. Even though women are making inroads into the boardrooms, they are still underrepresented in higher management positions in companies. Now is the time for your organization to prioritize making gender equity in your workplace a reality if you truly want to tap into the benefits women leaders at to organizations.

With the rising need to create a workplace culture of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, it is vital to provide the tools, resources, and space for women to prepare for advancement rather than making it challenging for them to have access to more expanded leadership roles.

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