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Leadership and Professional Development - is it different for women?

A woman in a leadership role

Even in 2015, women are still underrepresented at all levels within organisations and most significantly in senior leadership roles. Evidence from recent studies, most recently Lean In and McKinsey, points to two key reasons: organisation practices and culture, and women’s own beliefs, actions and behaviours around their career development.

If women are to achieve their full potential in contributing to the economy, changes are urgently needed at both the corporate and individual levels. There is little doubt that having more women at the top improves financial performance (Ernst & Young, 2010) and is therefore something of a no brainer. Indeed most research studies show that CEOs believe this – more than 75% of them support gender diversity but are struggling to make it a reality in their organisations.

Whilst organisations are well-intentioned in their desire to create a climate and environment in which their people thrive, evidence suggests that women are actively disadvantaged by many company policies, practices and culture. The hard question is what policies, practices and behaviours make the most difference to encouraging and enabling women to succeed at the most senior levels?

Linked to this, we must also ask what more can women do to help themselves? From our work at Kaplan, it seems to us that women become easily entrapped from an early career stage in self-limiting beliefs, albeit informed by their real world experience of work. Or, they seem quite simply overwhelmed by the struggle and stress of being accepted as authentic women leaders. Equally potent is the noticeable fall off in ambition as women become more senior – is this exacerbated by what they perceive as the unattractiveness of the C-Suite environment dominated by male attitudes and behaviours? We believe there are steps women can explicitly be encouraged to take that will build their confidence and open up more opportunities for them.

Helping women make better choices
Promotion to senior roles requires the vast majority of candidates to have experience of line management roles with profit and loss responsibility in core operational areas of the business. By VP level, research (Lean In and McKinsey, 2015) shows that more than half of women have switched to staff roles, eg in HR, legal and finance, unlike the majority of men. Do women need better advice and guidance about the implications of these choices and more encouragement about their potential as effective senior leaders in the core of the business?

Women have often been encouraged to seek support through women’s only networks. Research shows that these tend to offer mainly social support, however, and not the instrumental support that provides access to resources and decision makers and links to senior executives. It turns out, interestingly, that men are better at building instrumental networks. Would women benefit from more explicit help in building broader networks of people who are influential in their own right and who also provide access to senior sponsors?

Organisations could also be much clearer and open about the less easily defined criteria for promotion to the most senior roles. Executive presence, for example, is a subjective evaluation made of an individual and at risk of being interpreted as ‘people who behave like us’. Perhaps senior teams need to understand much more about their own biases and (un)willingness to embrace diversity in all its forms.

Helping women to develop themselves
It is often difficult for women to envisage themselves as part of a senior executive team – the ways of working and behaving seem so distant from their own. Caught in the trap of underplaying or not recognising their strengths, women need to be encouraged to develop a confident understanding of who they are as leaders, alongside their personal influence and engagement style, and to find their own ways of challenging, being tough and exercising their vision and leadership. It seems to us that women have particular needs in terms of developing their personal presence and impact and navigating the cultural expectations around gender and behaviour.

We have become more confident in our view that women only development programmes play a vital part in enabling and encouraging women to greater self-belief, greater confidence in their abilities and greater impact on their organisations. They are not the only solution but they offer the chance for women to explore openly and honestly the particular challenges they face in developing their professional lives, alongside their out of work responsibilities, and to find a way for their lives to be enjoyable and fulfilling.

If this challenge were easy to meet, it would have been done by now. The factors influencing women’s career progression are many and with complex interactions. Kaplan Leadership and Professional Development are currently developing a women leaders in business programme – for further details or to arrange a meeting please get in touch with us.

This article was written by Gill Reynolds and Jessica Raby who are both Senior Leadership Consultants of the Kaplan Licensed Faculty.

To learn more about Kaplan Leadership and Professional Development please contact us at or 0203 468 0907.