As we look at the current state of affairs as it relates to women’s leadership, there’s some good news and some not so good news. First, the good news: 60% of the global educated talent pool is made up of women which means women are more educated than ever before, and make up over half of the potential hires that companies are seeking out. Women also make up 80% of the decision making consumer pool, which means they now hold power of the purse string. And most importantly, we now know that companies see a 53-84% increase on return on equity when there are more women on a board of directors. So what do these numbers tell us? They tell us that companies can no longer afford to ignore the facts. The facts state that if you want to hire the best talent, and you want to speak to your base of consumers, you have to hire women and you have to learn how to market to women. This ladies and gentleman, is one of the biggest economic opportunities of the 21st century.
So if this is the case, then we would expect businesses to naturally be gender balanced by now. Unfortunately that isn’t the case. The facts also show a big gap as it relates to women in leadership positions. Currently, only 14% of CEO’s in Fortune 500’s are women. That means 86% of those positions are still held by men. These numbers paint a dismal story showing us that despite all the investment put into diversity & inclusion programs, organizations are still missing the mark on gender.
To understand why this continues to be the case, one must dig a little deeper. Studies show that 53% of women in STEM leave the corporate world mid-career. And they don’t leave because they want to be mothers or form families, contrary to popular belief. They leave because they find the work environment unsupportive, they have unclear career paths, and few role models and mentors to help them advance in their careers, according to the Harvard Business Review. And not only is this a loss for the women who opt out, but its also a big loss for the company – it can sometimes cost upwards of $200,000 to replace each mid-career woman who leaves, not to mention it diminishes the odds of closing the gender gap. So what does this tell us? It tells us that as much as we like to think we’ve made progress, shattered glass ceilings etc, companies have missed the boat on gender balance, and are continuing to pay the high cost of that – either through the cost of replacing women who leave or through the diminishing returns due to lack of hiring from the educated talent pool, or because of a lack of representation of women in senior executive positions.
If we zoom into this further, we can begin to understand why women are leaving their careers in droves, by looking at the specific challenges women face, and what is causing this to happen.
There are 3 main leadership challenges that women face in the modern workplace which contributes greatly to this mass exodus of women mid-career: Unconscious Bias around Gender stereotypes, The Double Bind, and the Likeability Gap. Let’s first begin with looking at the impact of Unconscious Bias on the gender gap.
The conscious and unconscious associations we hold as a society regarding women, men and leadership can have a powerful impact on how we think and act. And there is no better example that proves this than the Heidi Roizen story.
Researchers from Columbia’s Business School asked students to appraise the resume of an entrepreneur called Howard Roizen. His resume showed that Mr. Howard had worked at Apple, launched his own software company and been a partner at a venture capital firm. He was a proficient networker and had very powerful friends including Bill Gates. Colleagues described him as a “catalyst” and a “captain of industry”. The students thought he’d be an excellent person to have within a company because he was someone who got things done and was likeable.
Now the interesting part of this experiment was that Mr. Howard didn’t actually exist. When students were asked to review the true owner of the resume, Ms. “Heidi” Roizen, they judged her to be more selfish and less desirable than Mr. Howard, even though she was viewed as being equally as effective.
So this illustrates the fundamental role of our assumptions and judgments as it relates to women and leadership. Most of us still have trouble associating women with the word “leader” or “leadership.” The result of this is that women are faced with a double bind, and are sent confusing messages as to what leadership style is most appropriate. Most women end up adopting the traditional “command and control” style of leadership that has been the dominant approach for over a century. Unfortunately this has had unintended and unintentional consequences.
Because women have had to emulate traditional qualities of leadership in order to compete and adapt to the modern business environment, they have also unintentionally “forgotten” the qualities they naturally bring to the table, such as empathy, compassion, connectivity and collaboration. These traits have not been valued within organizations in the Industrial Age of the 20th century, and so women (and men) have chosen to “shut down” this part of them, which also happens to be the very essence that makes women unique and authentic.
Studies show more women prefer to work for a man than another woman. Because of gender stereotypes, and because of the double bind, women are unable to find an authentic leadership style that is effective. And when women aren’t authentic, when they put on a “faux masculine” leadership style which can be more aggressive, dominating, controlling and competitive, the fact of the matter is that people don’t respond well to that.
The solution lies in our ability to become aware of our unconscious biases that inform how we treat others, how we relate to them and how we communicate. This affects all areas of the organization, from the recruitment process all the way to how we think about the end consumer. When we encourage expression of a more balanced approach to leadership, the impact is a more inclusive work environment that inspires collaboration, innovation and creativity. And cultivating this style of leadership, particularly in women, but also in men, can help us create better results for our teams and ultimately for business.
Now, the solution might seem straightforward, but it really isn’t. As we saw earlier, there are many elements resulting in the leadership gap, and organizations need a structured approach to tackle these issues.
What organizations need most to closed the gender gap is a multi-pronged approach, a top down strategy, touching all levels of management. Buy-in from the C-suite is essential, and so is communicating a strong vision and business case for closing the gender gap. When collaborative leadership becomes part of the organization’s values and way of doing business, it has a much greater chance of adoption.
With the right type of training, tools and resources, we can begin creating an environment where women are able to show up authentically, take a seat at the table, and engage with men in a collaborative and meaningful way. As men begin supporting women’s advancement through mentoring and advocacy, to work towards balance, not only will businesses help women advance, but they’ll also ensure that they stay competitive by hiring the best talent, and representing the majority of their consumer base within in the organization. After all, we wouldn’t want to miss out on the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century, would we?
Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In – Women, Work and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013)
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, 7 Steps to A Gender Balanced Business (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2014)
Catalyst Report, The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards (2007)
Harvard Business Review, Athena Factor Report – Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology (2008)