Why do women remain underrepresented in leadership, and what can we do about it?
A few months ago, I had the chance to explore these questions with a group of extraordinary women—leaders from across finance, academia, and policymaking. The gathering, known as Women in Capital Markets, is hosted every few months by the Center for Audit Quality, where I serve as Executive Director.
While the group didn’t solve the world’s gender diversity challenges over lunch, we did discuss a range of best practices in this area to guide current and future leaders. The conversation was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, to encourage candor, but I’m pleased to share a few of the group’s insights with you.
Recognizing Progress, Challenges, and Realities
Throughout the conversation, participants recognized that the state of leadership in corporate America is less than ideal when it comes to gender balance. Women, for example, make up over 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, and yet they remain underrepresented by significant margins in the leadership ranks of both the private and public sectors. “While we’ve made progress,” said one participant, “I don’t think we’re keeping pace with where we need to be.”
The roots of such challenges are tangled and run deep. Among the key factors are culture, history, and simple force of habit. The discussion also touched on some of the biological and cognitive elements at work; scientific study has revealed the physiological differences between the female and the male brain, which could help explain why women and men often take quite different approaches to communicating, problem solving, decision making, and team building.
Tips for Future Leaders
In light of these challenges, the discussion covered numerous ways that individuals can overcome obstacles and advance their careers. Many comments were aimed at people who are in the early stages of their careers or who are looking to rise into leadership roles.
Aspire to be a leader–not necessarily the boss: “I don’t tell anyone to aspire to be the CEO, necessarily,” said one chief executive. Instead of fixating on the top job, she said she urges younger people to “aspire to be a leader, to have the confidence to raise your hand, and to build different capabilities.”
Build skills, find a niche: Indeed, participants agreed that the development of a strong, focused skill set was essential to leadership and career advancement. The workplace, however, isn’t the only place to develop skills. Athletics, participants agreed, can be an early way to cultivate strong leadership and teamwork abilities. Remarkably, all of the women in the room revealed that they had played competitive sports at the college or high school level.
Pursue your passions: Beyond skills, interests also can serve as a key building block of leadership. “When you do find something you’re passionate about, you have more confidence,” offered one discussant. “You feel like, ‘I know this stuff. I can do this.'”
Get out of your comfort zone from time to time: The group identified “confidence” and a “can-do” attitude are two of the “three Cs” of career advancement. The third is “counsel,” referring to the importance of seeking out mentors (men or women who can provide you guidance) and sponsors (who can advocate for you when you are “not in the room”). A fourth “C” could be “comfort-zone”—a recurring theme in the conversation was the importance of leaning into uncomfortable situations and taking the occasional risk, even if those decisions sometimes lead to setbacks. The path to leadership, it was observed, is not usually linear, nor is it always free from failure.
Tips for Current Leaders
In addition to sharing guidance for those aspiring to leadership, the discussion also turned to steps those at the top of organizations can take to nurture leadership and address gender diversity challenges.
Lead by example: “Leadership has to model the behaviors that we want to see,” suggested one participant. For example, a CEO may talk about the importance of work-life balance, but if he or she peppers subordinates with late-evening emails or never leaves the office until after 9:00 p.m., the message becomes clear that the organization does not in fact value that balance.
Provide positive feedback, even inspiration: On the topic of mentoring, the importance of positive feedback was emphasized. “It really is important that our young women think they can do this,” said a participant. “We all should use our role model status to inspire.” Positive feedback, of course, can come in many forms and degrees, including simple day-to-day encouragement.
Honesty is the best policy: On the other hand, the consensus was equally strong that mentors and sponsors should not limit themselves to providing only positive feedback. Indeed, one participant recalled an instance where a former colleague likely was hindered in her career because of reluctance by senior leaders to address frankly ways that she could improve. As noted by another discussant, constructive criticism can be a “gift.”