Women in Leadership Series: Part II

Women in Leadership Positions resized 600In the previous blog in this series my colleague, Miranda Hanes, discussed the percentage of women moving into leadership roles and the decidedly lower representation of women at the highest ranks in the organization. She posed the question, “Where are they?” I would like to expand upon Miranda’s blog by posing another question, “Where did they go?” We know that women comprise about 50 percent of the workforce and approximately 30 percent of managerial and supervisory roles, but very few women ascend to the C-suite in organizations. So the question, in my opinion, becomes what happens during women’s career progression that causes them to break the glass ceiling and ascend the career ladder, and why do so many women go over the glass cliff? Is it due to a lack of skill and competence, a matter of cultural fit, the need for work/life balance, or is it simply burnout and frustration with the need to work smarter and harder to reach the top spots.

A recent case study in the Business Insider titled “Why Women Are More Effective Leaders Than Men” helps answer some of these questions through its exploration of the effectiveness of male and female leaders at various points in their career. In this article, men were rated more effective early in career, whereas women were rated more effective mid-to-late in career, with effectiveness ratings having minimal mean differences beyond the age of 60. Some key differences as to what may contribute to this trend relates to behavioral characteristics such as: openness to feedback, willingness to change one’s leadership style, and a strong focus on professional development. Or in Hogan speak, a strong focus on strategic self-awareness.

When thinking more broadly about how female leaders are typically characterized and perceived, there is a strong emphasis on competencies like collaboration, motivating and inspiring others, and team development. What is often left out of these conversations are competencies such as: delivers results and takes initiatives. Recent research has shown that women tend to fair equally well, if not better in some cases, on these competencies. However, very few organizations have women leading at the top of the house. So the question is why aren’t we promoting women more rapidly? Or even in many cases, where did they go or why did they opt out? In order to more directly answer these questions I think we need to go to the source. We need to spend more time talking to women in these high profile leadership roles to better understand their journey, their struggles, and what gets them out of bed in the morning and motivated to lead others.

Until we can have these conversations, our best strategy is to continue focusing efforts on leadership development programs geared specifically for women, and allowing women more access to strong female leaders earlier in their careers. Research suggests that women are interested and motivated by opportunities to develop, so these programs are likely working, and could be a great way to engage and retain high performing female leaders.

I might also add that we need to encourage both men and women to capitalize on their strengths. Although created equally, we know that men and women do not lead in the same way. Therefore, my advice for organizations is to stop focusing on leadership development in a vacuum. If women and men take a different approach and style to leadership, then create programs that focus on this difference and leverage it to bring diverse styles to the C-Suite. And for all of the aspiring female leaders out there, don’t try to lead like a man. We bring a different set of strengths and interpersonal style to the table. Let’s focus on that—even if it does mean we climb the ladder one rung at a time.