Women in Leadership

Bridging the Gap: Addressing Barriers to Women in Leadership

By Sarah AlexanderNovember 28, 2017

The mission of EverwiseWomen is to engage emerging women leaders through a tailored learning experience. In “7 Ways to Support Women’s Advancement to Leadership Roles,” Elizabeth Borges, Senior Manager at EverwiseWomen, shared insights gathered from researching the experiences and impact felt by the hundreds of women who have completed the program.

Most programs supporting women’s advancement to leadership tend to be “one and done” and “one size fits all.” More often than not, they fail to provide ongoing development, to acknowledge that all women are different and therefore require customized support, and to foster the connection that is so critical for individual professional growth.

Below are the seven individual and organizational barriers that Everwise identified for women seeking leadership positions and steps to take in order to begin addressing them:

“I doubt myself and feel like an imposter”

Many women participating in EverwiseWomen comment that they don’t feel like they are “supposed” to be in leadership roles and like they got there because they “pretended.” This lack of confidence among women – feeling like being themselves is not enough to earn a leadership position – can have a significant impact on their actions through “expectancy behavior,” the concept that beliefs motivate behavior, and behavior shifts outcome.

How to Help: Confidence Building

Providing actionable feedback is a key technique to build confidence among women. Borges noted that women statistically receive more vague feedback (if they get any feedback at all), and this makes it hard to know what to continue, what to change, and how to change it. Creating peer networks and training women on foundational leadership skills ensures that they    have the potential to be leaders. In fact, Google has found that when women attend seminars on “how to seek out promotion,” it validates their desire to pursue career progress and they advance more often.

“I feel uncomfortable asking for raises and promotions”

When it comes to developing careers, women feel particularly uncomfortable asking for raises and promotions. Part of this comes from internal lack of confidence, and the other part comes from external signaling. Borges cited the statistic that when women have the confidence to ask for a raise, they are 25% less likely to receive it than men.

How to Help: Negotiation Model

EverwiseWomen has found the most effective approach is to come at the issue from two directions. First, train women on negotiation techniques; second, train managers about bias in order to remove structural barriers. Developing an organizational structure for performance management and career planning, including clear and measurable criteria for advancement, will create a culture that provides a more even footing for men and women seeking promotion.

“I don’t see leaders who look like me”

When there are no female leaders in an organization, this sends a message to women that they do not fit as a leader in that enterprise. When there are only one or two, it sends a different but similar message: there are just a small number of ways to become a leader as a woman. Either of these messages can be detrimental to women’s aspirations.

How to Help: Role Models

The role organizations play to address this barrier is straightforward but easier said than done: diversify leadership teams. Diverse leadership will enable women to see that different leadership styles are possible and encourage them to pick the one that fits best for them. One step in this direction can be to host fireside chats with any women who are in a senior position in order for junior female counterparts to ask questions they might otherwise be uncomfortable asking. Alternately, it might be necessary to connect women with female leaders outside the organization – this is where programs like EverwiseWomen can be very effective.

“I don’t feel like I can be my authentic self”

While many women in EverwiseWomen say that they are comfortable when surveyed – 71% said they feel their organizations have inclusive cultures –subsequent conversations poke holes in this statistic. Women often struggle with being both warm and confident: when they act like strong leaders, they feel like they are perceived as less likeable.

How to help: Develop an Inclusive Culture

Building a holistic diversity and inclusion strategy drives organizational accountability for everyone operating within it. Recent research from HBR found that culture is the biggest barrier to women’s success: men and women aren’t actually behaving or engaging with senior leaders differently; it is the perception of women (among both men and women) that drives the gap between men and women in leadership.

How can a company develop an effective D&I strategy? Start with self-assessment (individually and organizationally): document current biases and identify key metrics to intervene. Then implement metric goals – does the organization want to increase retention? The percent of women in leadership roles? Track progress against these metrics and then reassess and iterate.

“I don’t know if the trade-offs are worth it. I’d have to sacrifice my life.”

More than half (51%) of women joining EverwiseWomen believe the balance between their personal and professional life is not sustainable. And if women don’t feel like what they are doing now is sustainable, they will be unlikely to want to do more.

How to help: Support Work-Life Priorities

By developing flexible workplace policies, organizations support women as they think about taking on a leadership role. It is important to understand that women do not want flexibility at the cost of visibility. Publicly recognizing that working remotely is simply a different way of working – not “stepping out” – can help reinforce that people leveraging flexible workplace policies take their career just as seriously as those coming into the office every day. Providing visibility to employees on teams in remote offices is particularly important in global companies.

“I don’t have anyone rooting for me”

Who professionals are connected to and who they learn from matters. While a mentor can provide guidance, a sponsor is an advocate within an organization. When people have someone in their organization pulling for them, that goes a long way in terms of career progression. Men are 46% more likely than women to have a sponsor. On top of that, women’s mentors tend to hold less senior roles. This imbalance is particularly acute for women of color.

How to help: Pathways for Sponsorship

The primary way that organizations can support women in their quest for leadership positions is to establish formal sponsorship programs. This is a big ask for leaders, but it is one of the most effective ways to address this barrier because it creates an even footing to form connections within an organization.

Sponsorship is a 2-way relationship: from sponsors’ points of view, how their protégés perform matters tremendously because their performance impacts the sponsors’ reputations. Organizations can address the hesitancy that might come from this dependency by setting clear expectations and guardrails.

“I don’t know where I want to go next”

At the end of the day, people must take ownership of their career trajectories. Women want to succeed and grow but many are not sure what that looks like: 46% of EverwiseWomen participants weren’t sure of their next steps when they entered the program. There is no one right path for everyone, but it is important to have some semblance of a plan.

How to Help: Develop Clear Career Paths

There are several ways to help women develop blueprints for their careers. One is to match women with individualized mentors who can help them determine goals and steps to achieve them. Another is to provide continuous learning opportunities, which help women identify what makes them tick. Between identifying their intellectual and professional passions and leveraging the resources mentioned above, women will be able to make their leadership ambitions a reality.

With all of the above it is critical to think about how to bring men into this conversation. Getting them involved is necessary, because for the most part, men are still in charge: only 5% of CEO’s are women in the S&P 500. Sharing the insights discussed above can lay the foundation to engage all stakeholders in this conversation and pave the way for women to take concrete steps to the boardroom.

Everwise found that 89% of women who enter EverwiseWomen identify as being ambitious, but this is not translating into leadership roles because of the seven barriers above. Addressing these issues will turn the ambition that lies within women into action. While not every women wants to be a C-suite executive, addressing these barriers to leadership will drive diversity in the boardroom and allow every woman equal access to the professional goals she aspires to.

Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander

Author & Contributor

About the Author

Sarah is an elite triathlete and independent strategy consultant with an MBA from Chicago Booth. She is passionate about empowering others to achieve excellence.

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