I just came back from giving a talk to a number of women business professionals at the National Women’s MBA Annual Conference in Houston. Surrounded by fantastic women speakers and employers clamoring to hire women in their businesses, it got me speculating as to when will finally be the right time for women to move fully into senior leadership roles in business, politics and other fields.
There is plenty of data indicating there are only a relatively small number of women CEOs or women on corporate boards in the United States, and that progress in moving women up has been slow. The higher you go in a firm, the more men there are. Most firms do not even have goals for enhancing the gender diversity of their upper managers. Contrast this with Europe where gender quotas have been implemented in order to push faster progress on the representation of women on corporate boards.
We also know that there is increasingly more data by groups such as Catalyst, the Thirty Percent Coalition, Credit Suisse Research Institute, DDI and The Conference Board, and McKinsey & Company that shows that companies see better corporate governance, performance, and higher return on sales when there are more women on boards and/or more women leaders throughout the company. In fact, some research suggests that having more women leaders contributes to the GDP of the U.S. economy because it helps to expand the workforce and increase productivity.
So, what is the hold up? According to researchers, there are a number of reasons why we do not have more women at senior levels. These include: lack of role models, no sponsors to advocate for them as they climb the ladder into higher management, unconscious bias or overt discrimination, exclusion from informal networks where they can make critical connections with others, and being evaluated for promotions based on performance whereas men may be evaluated for promotions based on potential. There are also erroneous beliefs that women won’t be able to manage their lives or don’t have the needed ambitions, among other factors.
Women, though, have much to contribute. Women often bring a more collaborative approach to leadership that helps to develop talent in organizations. Research by McKinsey & Company noted that women leaders were more likely to possess some of the most important leadership attributes needed today – inspiration, participatory decision-making, goal setting and rewards, and intellectual stimulation. Others have shown that women excel at exhibiting integrity, developing others, and building relationships. A Harvard Business Review article by Zenger and Folkman in 2012 illustrated that at all levels, women were rated by their peers, bosses and direct reports as higher in 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership, even in areas considered men’s strengths – taking initiative and driving for results. Those of us who teach leadership recognize that these are the exact attributes needed for leaders to be able to fully engage their employees and enhance productivity, satisfaction, and organizational commitment as well as enhance customer satisfaction and profitability.
To gain more women in senior leadership roles, we need to set targets and create opportunities for moving them up each level of the managerial rank. We can’t just put them in first line supervisory positions and stop there. We need to ensure they have mentors and sponsors who can advocate for them. We need to send the message from the top down so that everyone knows having women leaders is not only valued, but imperative for a firm to succeed. We need to ensure that the behaviors women exhibit are perceived accurately. For instance, as Sheryl Sandberg noted “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills”.
Isn’t it time that we had more women as senior leaders in business, politics, and other areas? As the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai said, “We cannot succeed when half of us are held back”.
Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean of learning and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.