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.
Earlier this year, Washington, DC ,Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a three-year, $20 million investment targeting “the most urgent and persistent challenges” to realizing the potential of black men and boys in DC. Certainly a worthwhile initiative and one for which the Mayor should be applauded. But, when I looked for a similar focus on the needs of inner-city women and girls, I couldn’t find one. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a DC oversight. It exists nationally and shows up across our social, economic and business sectors.
Consider the biotechnology field, for example.
Venture capitalists – arguably the starting point for inventions, discoveries and new businesses in biotech – are more likely to fund white males over non-white minorities and females. According to recent findings by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, companies headed by male executives received 98% of all investments, while companies run by female executives received only 1% of the funding. And women-led start-up companies received only 7% of all venture capital funding in the United States.
The challenges women face and the disparity between funding for programs advancing men and women – particularly women of color – is documented in a report from the Open Society Foundations and the Foundation Center, showing that in 2011 foundations awarded more than $40-million in grants to support black boys and men, up from $29 million the previous year. Despite the overwhelming data that girls of color face the same and at times compounded set of obstacles as their male counterparts, no big foundations yet have major grant-making efforts that address their race- and gender-specific needs.
In 2012, just 5.4% of all foundation funding went to programs focused on women and girls, and less than 1% to programs focused on Black women and girls.
Over recent years, a number of initiatives have emerged to support boys and young men of color, with some two dozen foundations involved. But there have been few new efforts aimed at improving the lives of girls and young women of color, which begs the question: If support for boys and men of color is a priority, why are women and girls of color not an equal priority?
Of course, the answer is “they are”…or at least should be.
In my estimation, we need to do a few things to provide higher levels of funding to develop programs for girls and women with the same energy and urgency as we now do for disadvantaged boys and young men.
We need to recognize that girls and young women need the same kinds of role models now increasingly being provided to boys and young men. Women who have “made it” or are on the way up need to reach back to those who are following by becoming mentors and sponsors for young women who are searching for that resource and need trusted guidance and support.
We need to introduce young women and girls to business sectors and opportunities they might not otherwise have considered, and provide them with the skills and experience to compete in male-dominated fields, such as those making up the STEM business sectors.
There is some movement in that direction, but it is not growing quickly enough.
Last year, Booz Allen Hamilton created an initiative called STEM Girls 4 Social Good (SG4SG). It is an effort to bring together professionals and university summer interns with STEM backgrounds to work on some of today’s greatest societal challenges. During the kickoff week, Booz Allen joined Polaris and Girls Inc. of the Washington, DC, Metro Area for its annual six-week STEM camp. Booz Allen hosted 40 girls for a week-long focus on data science and its every day applications. With the support of talented mentors at Booz Allen, the Girls Inc. DC Metro Area girls learned ways that data science can improve the quality of life and, in this instance, help address the problem of human trafficking.
More initiatives like that are needed, as are partnerships with organizations like Girls Inc. of the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Area, exposing girls to opportunities they might not have dreamt possible and helping them build the confidence to pursue those dreams. As one 12 year old in Washington, DC’s, Girls Inc. program told us: “When I wake up, I see someone who is willing to do anything to achieve my dream.”
In addition to developing an overlooked resource our country sorely needs, - i.e. the talents of girls and women - there’s another, more personal, reason to invest time, mentoring, sharing skills and experiences with disadvantaged girls…it just feels good!
You don’t have to look very far to find an organization seeking workforce diversity, particularly when it comes to women in leadership positions. It may take further exploration to find one that is successful meeting that goal.
Many of these well-meaning organizations are good at supporting women’s aspirations, and even putting in place programs that both encourage and assist women who want to move up the leadership ladder. What they are less successful at (in some cases even fail at) is preparing the organization itself, through policies and practice, to accept those who may not look, think, or act like the current male-dominated leadership ranks.
It is not enough for an organization to provide time and resources for women to learn technical, problem-solving and other skills. It must also create an environment that embraces not just “what” decisions women make, but also “how” they make them.
We women have qualities and abilities unique from those men bring to the workplace. We, for example, are apt to bring emotion (not a bad thing) into the decision-making process far more frequently than men. We may also be more optimistic and less skeptical about outcomes. Unless an organization’s leadership recognizes, accepts and embraces these traits, women aspiring to the top organizational rungs will continue to get mixed messages: yes, we want you to rise, but to do so, you have to act more like us, men.
To some extent, that messaging is understandable. What role models do women have? When we look around the workplace, and especially in the c-suite and boardroom, we see men. On rare occasions, and usually under duress – the NFL’s domestic violence issue, and American Apparel’s sexual harassment scandal come to mind – we are brought in for our sensitivity and unique views on such matters (or, cynics might say, it is just window dressing to obscure an ugly chapter in an organization’s history).
If you believe the words Walt Kelly – the creator of comic strip Pogo – puts in the mouth of one of his characters, “we have seen the enemy and he is us” – what can be done to tap into this underdeveloped pool of executive talent?
Provide at least some in-house success stories and role models. Don’t wait as the NFL, American Apparel and others have, until the crisis hits before bringing us and our unique perspectives into highly-visible roles. Organizations need women’s influence in the decision-making, policy-making process way before that happens. With women in the c-suite and boardroom, some of those crises may even have been avoided.
And what happens once we women see reflections of ourselves at the top of the organization? Who champions our move to those heights? Mentoring helps. Sponsors are better!
Assigning an established woman leader to work with a current female manager at a lower level within the organization, either formally or informally, can pay dividends.
What does the organization gain for recognizing, encouraging and mentoring future women leaders? It could gain a good deal.
In 2012, leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman presented a study on workplace leadership effectiveness. It found that, in overall leadership effectiveness, women scored 54.5% and men 51.8%.
When women see other women making decisions and being rewarded as leaders, they are more likely to step up and bring their views to department-level meetings, influence projects, provide strategic insight and, in general, step out of the shadows with less fear of making a career-limiting mistake.
And organizations should encourage such actions. By doing so, they will uncover potential leaders in some of the nooks and crannies that have historically gone unnoticed.
You know an issue is gaining importance when studies and surveys begin looking into it. When world-class universities devote resources and research to understand its implications, the issue has worked its way into the public conscience.
Gender balance and “women in the workplace” issues have reached that plateau.
In May, 2015 Harvard Business School announced the Gender Initiative; its objective: “to accelerate progress of women leaders.” Such a prestigious and highly visible program adds to the voices decrying the dominance of gender stereotypes when it comes to making hiring, promotion, and board membership decisions.
“So much of what people think they know about gender is simply not substantiated by empirical evidence but instead is based on gender stereotypes,” according to Robin Ely, Harvard Business School professor and the person who heads the initiative. She’s right, of course, and she’s not alone.
A study by the Catalyst, Inc., a leading research and advisory organization focusing on women in the workplace, found that gender-based stereotyping often colors c-suite perceptions of women leaders, frequently misrepresenting their true talents. This, in turn, widens the gender gap.
The biggest red flag of the study, Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge:” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed, was the finding that men consider women to be inferior problem solvers, one of the critical qualities for effective leadership and a hallmark behavior of a CEO. Since men far outnumber women at the top executive level, and are almost always the decision makers when it comes to hiring and promoting to the senior ranks, such misperceptions make a significant contribution to sustaining and even widening the gender gap in leadership.
Is there a solution to this challenging and vexing workplace issue?
There isn’t a magic wand to wave, but there are steps we can take, informed by research such as the Catalyst study and the Harvard initiative, that will begin to close the gap, or at least bridge it.
Shelley Correll, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, has developed a series of steps aimed at eliminating gender-bias. Among them is education.
Both men and women need to understand that workplace stereotypes exist and recognize how that influences decision-making. That will sensitize us to the biases we all have. Decision-making, ultimately, benefits from that self-awareness.
The hiring/promotion process has to have clear, dispassionate, gender-neutral criteria applied to all candidates. Numerous examples, and supporting research, indicate that more women will be hired and subsequently moved into leadership roles when they exist.
When decision-makers are held accountable for their decisions, they think the process through very carefully, taking into account the criteria.
Women also must be held accountable; accountable for the career decisions we make and the reasons we make them.
When women lower their expectations of getting hired in certain positions (reverse stereotyping, if you will), they are doing themselves – and women in general – a disservice. By avoiding jobs in male-dominated industries, for instance, we breathe life into the myths and misrepresentations of women’s capabilities.
We women need to see ourselves as capable and competitive with men for any job, and comfortable at any organizational level up to and including the c-suite. That requires us to rethink our career objectives, get the education and experience required and follow our career dreams wherever they take us.
A 2015 Washington Post op-ed put a spotlight on the gender gap in technology, calling it “male-dominated,” and was critical of the disparity in pay between genders, calling it even more acute than in the rest of the business world. It took the position that if you are a woman looking for a job in the tech world, geography plays a big role in how well you get paid. A ranking by personal finance Web site, SmartAsset, released its “Best Cities for Women in Tech” report and named Washington, DC, as the number-one city based on the 2013 Census Bureau data. The Nation’s Capital led with women making up 37% of the tech workforce, the highest share of any of the fifteen cities on the list.
So why did Washington lead the list? The Federal government’s hiring policies are the answer, placing special emphasis on ensuring that its workforce reflects the population at large. But does Washington really deserve that number-one ranking? Sure, women have growth opportunities in the Nation’s Capital, but they are still not well-represented in executive-level positions.
Is it reasonable, then, to expect the tech sector to be a beacon of progressive thinking and include the female perspective in the top ranks of its leading and emerging companies?
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.
While some of the highest-ranking executives in technology are women – Marissa Mayer, Meg Whitman and Sheryl Sandberg immediately come to mind – only 6% of CEO positions at the top 100 technology companies belong to women. In fact, only 22% of the overall IT workforce is female, according the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
Unfortunate as they are, these numbers aren’t surprising when you consider that fewer women are pursuing STEM-related degrees. The National Science Foundation reports that, in 2012, fewer than 18% of undergraduate computing degrees were awarded to women, down from 37% in 1985. And a study by Women in Technology International reveals that, while 56% of professional positions in the U.S are held by women, they hold only 25% of IT jobs.
The numbers get even more worrisome. Only 11% of tech company executives are women; 5% of tech start-ups are owned by women; 56% of women who enter the field of technology leave for other careers. Part of the problem is that women earn significantly less than men for the same work. In computer programming, they earn 5% less; as software engineers, they earn 9% less; and women who are computer and information system managers are 18% behind their male counterparts.
A good deal of the current literature on the subject provides ample reasons why organizations and the nation would benefit by including the female perspective in the policy-making and strategy-developing ranks of the technology sector.
Studies show that women on tech teams boost problem-solving and creativity; teams with at least one female outperform all-male groups in collective intelligence tests; and ROI is 34% higher for tech companies with women in management. So, why isn’t there a more welcoming and supportive environment for women in technology?
Stereotypes of women as being less qualified than men for leadership positions, in spite of research and historical examples to the contrary, still exist to an alarming extent among boards, investors and others with great influence over the choice of organizational leaders. But, when women exhibit leadership characteristics desired in men – hard-driving, can-do attitude and other “culturally masculine” qualities – they are often viewed as aggressive or “cold-hearted” and unlikely to be a good fit.
Women are riding a Catch-22 merry-go-round. One of the recognized keys to a leadership role is support and sponsorship. Men have learned how to identify, and even position, future male leaders and help them join their ranks. Since there are far fewer women at that level, there are fewer role models and the numbers are even lower when seeking women with the time or inclination to assist another women. This is, unfortunately, even more pronounced within the tech sector.
So, women are left with male role models and often conform to those behaviors, and by doing so they give up the very things that make them unique and provide their organizations with a perspective not offered by their male colleagues. That perspective is based on a set of experiences different from men’s. Such a perspective can broaden and deepen an organization’s insight, making it more effective and agile; keys to successfully meeting future business challenges.
The tech world will only continue to grow – critical for the nation’s international trade and security – and successfully face emerging global competitive challenges by utilizing all the talent available. That includes recognizing and supporting women for leadership roles.
Women who aspire to those roles also have work to do. They must be ready to assume and succeed in those positions by preparing academically; identifying forward-thinking organizations for employment; and seeking supportive sponsors, women who have achieved success as organizational leaders.
Organizations that will succeed will be those that recognize and encourage the unique point of view women offer, and create a welcoming and supportive environment for women and men alike. Until that happens, it will be hard for women in technology (or anywhere else) to move into the leadership positions for which they are qualified and which they have earned.
Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, made news in 2015 but it wasn’t to announce a technology breakthrough. Rather it was because of a statement on the subject of women and pay raises. Essentially, his message was: don’t ask, trust that the system will give you the appropriate raise. “That’s good karma,” he told an audience of women at a conference.
He immediately reversed himself publicly and sent a clarifying e-mail to Microsoft employees. But, to me, that change of direction was more guidance from his communications advisers than an adjustment to Nadella’s CEO compass.
I’m not picking on Mr. Nadella but he is a high-profile CEO whose mindset, statistics show, is mirrored by most American C-suite executives…the majority of them male who may not see the three areas where the gender gap manifests itself most:
Because they earn almost 60% of undergraduate degrees and 60% of all master’s degrees, 47% of all law degrees and over 44% of master’s degrees in business and management, women are well prepared to assume leadership positions. They are 47% of the U.S. labor force, and 59% of the college-educated, entry-level workforce.
But here are other, less attractive, numbers for your consideration: Women control more than 80% of U.S. consumer spending yet are only 14.6% of executive officers, 8.1% of top earners, and 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs. They hold just 16.9% of Fortune 500 board seats.
At about the same time that Nadella was in the media spotlight, tucked away in the back of the business section was the story of another major corporate CEO moving his organization in a different, and to my mind, more progressive direction.
Glenn Murphy, who stepped down as GAP’s CEO in 2015 next, is credited with reversing the company’s tanking fortunes since taking the top spot in 2007. His highly visible and successful moves include redesigning its stores, buying new brands and enhancing GAP’s online and international presence. But his most lasting contribution may be his actions promoting equal pay practices and increasing the percentage of women in leadership roles. Currently 60% of GAP’s director-level and half of its vice presidents are women.
Is there a correlation between GAP’s recognition that women can offer a unique perspective to the strategy-developing, policy-setting process and bottom line success? I believe there is.
So, why aren’t there more women in leadership positions?
One explanation is sex discrimination, which certainly exists. But another more nuanced explanation is that the current male-driven leadership ranks don’t recognize the alternate views women offer as a positive contribution to organizational success. And, even when they do, it’s a rare organization that takes the time and makes the effort to identify and mentor future women leaders and incorporate their unique views into business planning.
The median age of an S&P chief executive is 55, while the average age of a director is 62. And, it is a male-dominated universe. The very women’s values and perspectives that GAP has so successfully tapped into are not generally understood or accepted by this male-dominated corporate culture. So, women who succeed in that culture must adapt to it. They recognize the need to think and act more like men to rise to the top.
But, women influence or directly make the majority of household purchases. They have very specific buying patterns and preferences. So having both women and men in decision-making roles gives organizations greater marketplace insights needed to increase sales and drive growth.
I suggest the key to greater gender balance in the workforce is greater enlightenment by the current male-led C-suite population. At a time when income inequality and women in leadership – including the prospect of a woman in the Oval Office – are getting heavy media coverage can growth-oriented, success-driven organizations afford to turn blind eyes to these issues?
Embracing an inclusive corporate culture, realigning job descriptions and incentive plans to encourage recognition of women’s contributions and rewarding team-building that includes women’s input are necessary steps along the road to enhancing gender balance and achieving greater organizational success.
Since moving forward with its progressive actions, GAP has seen a 24% increase in job applications and, over the past five years, almost a $2B jump in revenues.
Greater gender balance isn’t only good practice, it’s good business.
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