The American Association of University Women (AAUW) recently published Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, a report that dives into the reasons for female leadership gaps and proposes concrete steps for narrowing and, ultimately, eliminating them.
There is no lack of qualified women to fill leadership roles. There are numbers galore from a range of government agencies and academics who study the field – and I have written on this subject as well – providing ample evidence that women earn the majority of university degrees at every level except for professional degrees. And more women are in the workforce today than ever before. So why aren’t there proportionately similar numbers of women in leadership roles? AAUW’s conclusion is that there is something inherent in the system holding women back.
AAUW suggests that blatant sex discrimination and stereotyping are still major problems. To overcome those barriers and take a major step toward achieving gender parity, the pipeline of potential leaders must be filled with more women willing and able to assume leadership roles. I have made that point in previous commentaries. But there is a flip side to that coin that is equally important: Men must be willing and able to take on more domestic responsibilities so that more women have the opportunity to pursue demanding fields.
“We also need to encourage enlightened employers who embrace a more flexible workplace, allowing women and men to move in and out of the workforce as they balance careers, family and personal goals. In essence, we all need to intentionally engage in making diversity and inclusion work on a daily basis,” according to the report.
Women leaders can benefit the bottom line. A 2012 Credit Suisse study found that companies with at least one woman on their board had a higher return on investment than companies with no women on their board. A 2007 Catalyst report on S&P 500 companies found a correlation between women’s representation on boards and a significantly higher return on equity, a higher return on sales and a higher return on invested capital.
Despite this growing mountain of evidence supporting the notion that women leaders is not just a matter of equality, it is also good business, too many organizations have yet to realize the potential of a fully diversified workforce.
The AAUW study calls on three groups – individuals, employers and policy makers – as key change agents in providing greater gender balance in the workplace. I want to focus on what “individuals” must do if the nation’s workforce is going to move toward that goal, and the nation is going to realize greater ROI – in both financial and human capital – as a result.
First, women. What must we do to put ourselves in the best possible position to move up the leadership ladder?
There is no question that we must be prepared for advancement. So, education – both formal and informal – is key. The kind of degree and internships we pursue as students both add to our formal knowledge and begin to build the network we will need to get a leg up when we leave academia. The earlier we lay the foundation for that network and develop the social skills required to build it, the greater our competitive edge when we enter the workforce.
As we look at potential employers, we should be aware of where we will be most comfortable. It is very difficult to succeed in an uncomfortable environment. As an individual, are you more comfortable in a hierarchical or collegial organization…fast-paced or laid back…formal or informal…does it prize initiative or conformity? And, will you be able to find a mentor or, better yet, a sponsor to help you move your career ahead; someone who recognizes your talents and seeks ways to move you forward?
Men (and organizations), can you identify your stereotypes and biases and put them aside? As an individual, are you prepared to pick up a larger share of the domestic side of “work/life balance”? In the workplace, can you influence or initiate mentorship and sponsorship programs or become a mentor or sponsor?
Women have made progress in the workplace, true. But we are nowhere near where we need to be. We are significantly underrepresented in the seats of power and policy, we still only earn about seventy cents for every dollar our male counterparts earn for the same work – even at the highest levels – and we are far too frequently penalized for “motherhood.”
When women are excluded at the top, for whatever reason, we all lose; and so does our country. And, since we all benefit from greater gender balance, we must all work diligently to achieve it.
Jan Molino is the CEO & Managing Partner of Aspire Ascend, a service provider and member-based organization, that helps women advance toward leadership. She is an experienced speaker and facilitated numerous forums and panel discussions on this subject. Jan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.