According to research conducted in 2013 by the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs were women. Two years later, the Washington Post reported that figure has only grown to 24 - a meager 5 percent of the total number of Fortune 500 CEOs.
We are now in 2016 and women are still underrepresented at all levels within organizations, and most significantly in senior leadership roles (though there are exceptions - there are currently 5 women on the Kaplan UK board). So far, evidence has pointed to two key reasons: organization practices and culture, and women's own beliefs, actions and behaviors around their career development. But isn't the latter heavily influenced by the former?
While organizations say they want to create a climate and environment in which everyone thrives, it is clear that women are still actively disadvantaged by many company policies, practices and culture. The hard question is what policies, practices and behaviors make the most difference to encouraging and enabling women to succeed with their career?
From our work at Kaplan, it seems that many women can become easily entrapped from an early career stage in self-limiting beliefs, mostly informed by their real world experience of work. Some can 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 some women become more senior—is this exacerbated by what they perceive as the unattractiveness of the C-Suite environment dominated by male attitudes and behaviors?
By VP level, research 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. Important as these networks are, research shows that they tend to offer mainly social support and not the instrumental support that provides access to resources and decision makers and links to senior executives. It is a well-known fact that men are better at building instrumental networks: what is hindering women from building broader networks of people who are influential in their own right and who can also provide access to senior sponsors?
Executive presence is the result of a subjective evaluation made of an individual and is often fulfilled by “people who are like us.” Organizations need to be much clearer and open about the less easily defined criteria for promotion to the most senior roles and senior teams must understand much more about their own biases and (un)willingness to embrace diversity in all its forms.
Against this backdrop, it is not a surprise that women struggle to envisage themselves as part of a senior executive team, and caught in the trap of underplaying or not recognizing their strengths, they are often required to work harder than their male counterparts in order to develop a confident understanding of who they are as leaders, their personal influence and engagement style, and to find their own ways of challenging, being assertive and exercising their vision and leadership.
So how can organizations truly enable and encourage women to safely express greater self-belief, greater confidence in their abilities and greater impact on the business? This is a long overdue conversation, and one that has to start in the boardroom. Senior leadership teams are, in fact, accountable for offering every employee a fair chance to build a career that is fulfilling, enjoyable, and based on merit rather than prejudice.
We appreciate that mastering the diversity issue is a complex exercise, and yet it is not only a moral but also a commercial imperative for every business. The time has come to spend real efforts in identifying tools that can positively influence women's career progression. A good starting point, in our experience, is structuring focus groups where senior leaders assess openly and honestly the organizational ecosystem they are shaping in contrast with the particular challenges that women face in developing their professional lives.
This first stage allows senior executive teams to analyze essential factors including:
- Is the environment we are creating and the culture we are supporting good enough?
- Are we helping men understand what it means and feels like to be 'the other'?
- Is the organization being clear, realistic and impartial about its expectations of leaders?
Navigating the cultural expectations around leadership in relation to gender is critical to supporting women in achieving a defined and accomplished professional identity, and learning and development must step up to the challenge of supporting organizations with their diversity agenda and advising on how to create environments where women can flourish—just the way they are.