Mark Twain once wisely advised: “Keep away from small people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
Unfortunately, a recent study indicates that, in general, women don’t have access to the latter once they enter the workplace. The Bain & Company study found that while men and women enter the workforce with equal ambition, women experience a major drop in aspiration to top jobs at their company (and confidence they will reach them) after just two years.
The numbers are staggering; for women more than two years on the job, aspiration to achieve a C-suite position dropped 60% and confidence that they would make it there nearly 50% from when they began working (by comparison, men’s dropped only 10%).
Why This Matters
To understand just how problematic this finding is, we need to take a step back and remember three things. First, women are graduating from college at unprecedented rates – in fact now out graduating their male peers. In other words, any company interested in building a pipeline of the best and the brightest for future leadership must effectively recruit, engage and promote women.
Second, women in leadership have a tremendous positive impact on the bottom line: companies with women in leadership positions have greater profit and greater market share. And third, women are motivated not just by the desire to do well but to do good: in fact, 83% of women college students say that when thinking about the future, it’s “important that I volunteer to help improve my community” (compared to 73% of their male peers).
Suffice it to say; to build organizations comprised of the best and brightest that are highly innovative and drive positive change in our communities, sustaining women’s ambition and confidence to leadership is of critical importance.
The report cites the celebration and recognition of a “hero’s” culture – when those celebrated by leadership are men pulling all-nighters to complete a deliverable or sacrificing their personal lives to satisfy the demands of a client – and which alienates women.
This certainly aligns with what I’ve heard countless women say about their workplace experiences. One women once told me that she would never understand why her male colleagues were celebrated for saving the day at the 11th hour on an important project – and why she and her female colleagues weren’t when they worked hard to create systems and processes that eliminated risk and the need for heroics in the first place.
The study also found that many of women’s direct supervisors were not supportive of their aspirations (or even aware of them), instead making assumptions about their female employees ambitions and career goals.
How We Can Fix It
The report cites the importance of role models – but this only works if there are role models at the top. And with very few women in C-suite roles and huge numbers of women in the professional workforce, it seems a lot to ask of the few at the top to serve as role models or mentors for all professional women.
So what can we do now to create change?
1) Develop more inclusive managers and leaders (and hold them accountable for demonstrating inclusive behaviors)
It’s not enough to celebrate different ways of working – we need to change the way leaders behave and engage with their teams every day to really shift an organization’s culture and values. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation found that there are six key inclusive leader behaviors that ensure everyone is heard:
- Ensures that everyone speaks up and gets heard
- Makes it safe to risk proposing novel ideas
- Empowers team members to make decisions
- Takes advice and implements feedback
- Gives actionable feedback
- Shares credit for team success
The positive impact of demonstrating these behaviors bears out quantitatively; when leaders demonstrate at least 3 of them, employees are significantly more likely to feel welcome and included in their team (87% v. 51%), free to express their views and opinions (87% v. 46%), and feel their ideas are heard and recognized (74% v. 37%). But it’s also not enough as an organization to say that these behaviors are important – they must be tied to performance evaluations and financial incentives (especially if they’re just being introduced to the organization).
2) Connect women with mentors outside of their organizations
We’re all familiar with mentorship programs that connect mentees to more senior (or peer) mentors within the organization. But one of the most important roles a mentor can play is acting as a sounding board and listening to their mentee’s concerns and challenges. Women especially may be hesitant to talk about these types of challenges to a more senior employee within the company – especially if they feel the company culture doesn’t value their perspective. Matching women with mentors of both genders outside of the company can give women access to resources that provide an important outside perspective in a safe space.
3) Create channels for women to build sponsorship relationships
As discussed above, external mentors are important – but so are internal sponsors. Sponsors are different from mentors: mentors give you advice, but sponsors use their relationships and their power to advocate for you, whether that be for a promotion or stretch assignment. But sponsors can advocate for their protégé in other ways as well – for example, they can advocate for different ways of working. Just because a job has been done one way in the past (e.g., being “on” 24/7 or traveling constantly), doesn’t mean it has to be done that way in the future or even to be successful in that role. Sponsors can ensure the protégé is able to perform the job roles and responsibilities in a way that works for him/her, and provide air cover to ensure they’re successful, particularly if that job has never been done that way before (for example, working part time or doing the job outside of HQ).
In other words: mentors and sponsors are key to sustaining women’s ambitions and ensuring that women can work in ways that work for them. To Mark Twain’s point, let’s create organizations in which people – mentors, managers, and sponsors – make employees from all background feel they have equal opportunity to become great.