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I Wish I Could but I Can’t: Thoughts on the Empowerment of Women
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I really want to write a piece about the trend in the workplace to hire the best person for the job regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation.  I want to… but I can’t, because the top level of the majority of companies continues to be predominantly white middle age males – and in today’s society, that is a problem. The empowerment of women, especially in today’s competitive economy is an imperative.

Specifically for gender inequality at the top, you would think the percentage adjustment would be in full force since according to the US Department of Labor, women make up approximately 47% of the US workforce, a number which is projected to remain steady through 2020.  And yet, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit that tracks women in business, women currently hold the top job at a petite 4.6% of Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies and they only hold 14.6% of executive officer positions at those firms last year.

So the question is why?  What are the reasons behind our slow progress?  We can take computers from the size of a room to the size of a watch in just a few decades.  You would think we could advance the women into the leadership vacuum in the same time period.  But we haven’t so what could be the problem?

Is it discrimination?  Probably at some level, but as an executive coach who works with leading men and women, I think it’s more than that.  I think women may hold themselves back.  In my work, I’ve found this phenomena plays out in many ways.  Here are a few:

  1. Women often do not see themselves competing for the top job or even an executive job. They may be able to see themselves at VP but not go beyond that mentally.  This internal lid is not the lid that others put on them but the one that they put on themselves.  In order to reach the top jobs, they have to see themselves at the top as well as excel in the work to get there.
  2. In my experience, women acquiesce easier than men do. They are more likely to agree with a less than stellar performance review, pay that is lower than their male counterparts and job roles and assignments that have less credibility and power.
  3. Women are often collaborative. They are happy to make a difference for the employees and the customer and achieve great things at the team.  They are not as driven to get the keys to the kingdom.
  4. Women sometimes back off of pursuing top jobs because the cost to family life is too great and the sacrifice of multiple location moves and long hours with high stress are just not worth it.
  5. Even if they see themselves making it to the highest level and have the skills and performance to get there, they still have to overcome the competitiveness of their male counterparts and occasionally the true and outright discrimination of the CEO, the Members of the Board, peers and sometimes even the administrative assistants on the C-Suite floor.

For women, getting to the top is no easy task, but to be fair, it isn’t easy for men either.  These roles are difficult and personally taxing and only a few make it.   Male leaders can help get more women to the top as can current women who are at the top by reaching down and sponsoring women down in the organization, assigning women to stretch jobs, etc. Still, I believe the biggest impact will come when women choose to go all the way to the top.  They will have to open the lid from the inside and break through their own perceived constraints.  I’m convinced it will happen. I’m watching for the pink brigade, and when I see a woman take the challenge to go for the summit.  I’m the one cheering, “You can do it!  Don’t stop till you get there!  It’s not over until you win!”

I do believe that the tide will inevitably turn.  In fact we may one day need programs to help white males to get into leadership positions once they become a minority group of their own.  However, that is years down the road and we have to focus on the problem at hand.  That too may be solved relatively soon through attrition.  There is a leadership gap that is broadening as the baby boomers exit and both women and minorities 2 and 3 levels down from senior positions will be tapped to help fill the gap.

Another way that some of this will work itself out is that women are not going to lead like men, so one of the key barriers to women pursuing top jobs may become a non-issue.  Women’s work/life balance may not look the same as men’s.  As the workplace advances, leaders and shareholders are learning to focus more on results than on hours at the desk.  Understanding that 70 and 80 hour work weeks may not be necessary will likely help pave the way for more women to pursue top jobs.

In the meantime, let’s stop blaming discrimination.  Leaders like President Obama and Condoleezza Rice did not let discrimination define them or stop them, so it can’t be discrimination in itself that is the problem.   We can begin to focus on helping women break through their own perceived constraints.  We may need to create workshops that help women think through the end game:

  • What is the result you want?
  • What are your perceived barriers?
  • How can you get around the barriers?
  • What support do you need?
  • What are the goals and actions you can implement in order to get there?

Coaching and mentoring can also help women build skills, gain influence and gain exposure in front of high level decision-makers.  In addition, high level sponsors who reach down in the organization and pull high performing women up the ladder will impact the numbers

But in the end if we are going to change the statistics, we have to change a mindset – the mindset that women themselves hold.  The one that says, it’s okay to just be a member of the team and the one that says, the price to be at the top is too high.  The lid that many women need to break through is the one that can only be opened from the inside.

About The Author
Bonnie Hagemann
Bonnie Hagemann is the CEO of Executive Development Associates. EDA is a boutique consulting firm known around the world for its C-Suite capabilities in executive education, executive coaching, executive assessment and high potential development. In addition to leading the firm, Bonnie is an executive coach to Fortune 500 senior leaders as well as a speaker and a published author.To date, Hagemann has provided coaching for over 225 leaders in primarily large organizations including 8 organizational presidents. The majority of her coaching clients receive a promotion, a better position and/or an increase in salary during or upon completion of the coaching process.She has delivered over 300 presentations and speeches on • influential leadership, • trends in executive development, • choosing and developing high potentials, • generational differences, • building cohesive teams, • effective communication, • working through conflict, and • understanding behavior.She has 32 published works including a book on the shifting workforce demographics and their impact on leadership called Decades of Differences. She leads research initiatives and publishes results in the areas of Trends in Executive Development, Executive Coaching and High Potential Development. She is also called upon as a subject matter expert for the media, including Fast Company, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Career Builder, US Business Review, Human Resource Executive Magazine, Talent Management Magazine, US News and World Report, Investor’s Business Daily and many more.

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