The research findings are clear: companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams perform better financially than companies with the lowest women’s representation (see Catalyst and Deloitte). Irrefutable evidence abounds supporting the need for U.S. corporations to achieve a critical mass of women in senior leadership to succeed and thrive in today’s economy.
Yet we remain stalled in our efforts to advance women to senior leadership. In truth, we’ve flatlined. Despite a plethora of new training and leadership initiatives, in 2010, women held only 14.4% of executive officer positions, up from 13.5% in 2009, and only 7.6% of the top earning positions compared with 6.3% in 2009. Other countries are soaring far ahead of us in this regard.
From my career and leadership coaching work with hundreds of corporate women, and my yearlong research on the 12 “hidden” crises professional women face, I’ve directly witnessed what holds women back from attaining the highest levels of leadership.
What is this barrier? A key obstacle is a pervasive corporate culture that by its very nature expels a vast number of women. This culture is shaped by what I and others have called the “white male competitive career model,” and it remains intractable. The model is comprised of four key expectations of a “successful professional” that do not fit hundreds of thousands of women. Until we change the existing corporate culture, we will fail at bringing about female leadership growth.
The four assumptions of the white male competitive career model are:
1) A bias for linear or continuous employment histories (in other words, a rejection of “off-ramping” and “on-ramping” that women often need to do to address child and elder care priorities);
2) An over-emphasis on “full-time”, “face-time” and hierarchical structure;
3) An expectation that “ambitious” professionals will show the most intensive career commitment in their 30s (when many women are having babies); and
4) A guiding principle that money and power are primary motivators to contribution and performance.
Unless we shift these cultural assumptions, women’s leadership growth will remain a pipe dream. And America’s businesses will suffer.
Why is More Female Leadership Essential?
It’s a fact – organizations need a diversity of leadership perspectives and approaches in order to innovate and compete today. In addition, female leaders tend to display traits that are significantly different from male leaders, and these characteristics create new pathways for success and growth. From my own and others’ research, four key female leadership traits have emerged:
1) Stronger interpersonal and empathic relating skills – Women leaders exhibit a higher degree of interpersonal skills, empathy, flexibility and sociability, enabling them to gauge situations accurately and collect and integrate information from all angles. This ability to take in all sides of a situation enhances their persuasiveness, and allows them to infuse energy and power into a shared vision of the future and engenders commitment and support from others in creating that vision. Their empathy helps them connect deeply with people, and foster loyalty, support and collaboration from those they lead.
2) Resilience in applying lessons and learning from adversity – Women leaders show a higher degree of resilience and assertiveness than their male counterparts. This coupled with their flexibility and interpersonal connection helps them shake off negativity and setbacks, learn what they need to from the experience, and use the setbacks to fuel their drive to succeed and overcome challenges.
3) Honoring inclusion over hierarchy – The female leader tends to utilize a more inclusive, team-building style of problem solving and decision making. Women leaders demonstrate stronger listening skills, which including learning from listening, reflecting back, then implementing a plan that incorporates the best thinking of all involved. She tends to operate under the belief that inclusion is preferred over exclusion, and centrality is preferred over hierarchy. She doesn’t want to sit alone at the top. Instead, she wants to be in the center of a large and effective web of inclusion (for more, see Sally Helgesen’s The Web of Inclusion and The Female Advantage)
4) Risk taking and resisting following the “rules” – Female leaders show a higher tendency to resist both established procedures and over- cautiousness. They display a greater sense of urgency, risk -taking and abstract reasoning, and focus more on getting things done, with less of a tendency to hesitate, focus on small details, or follow external structure.
With a more open, consensus -building, and collegial approach to leading, women leaders create environments where information is shared more freely, collaboration and teamwork are honored, and flexibility along with risk-taking create new opportunities for success.
Corporate America desperately needs more than 15% of its senior leadership to be women. The question remains: Are American employers ready to embrace what needs to be done, following the lead of other countries that have made greater headway? The answer must be yes, and the time is now.
By Kathy Caprino (Forbes magazine)
Kathy Caprino, M.A. is a nationally-recognized women’s career and leadership coach, speaker and author of Breakdown, Breakthrough. Visit www.elliacommunications.com for more info.