Women Still Aren’t Making It To The Top


Women (Still Not) In Senior Leadership Roles

Before the holiday rush, I discussed in my blog the ongoing lack of women in senior leadership roles globally, and I asked if women hold positions of leadership in your company.  Your thematic responses were interesting:

  • No, not really.  It has always been that way.
  • No. They don’t have all the traits needed, especially visionary thinking.
  • No. They have to run home to take care of the kids.
  • To some extent, but still the C-suite is male dominated.

Despite years of progress in the workforce, as reported by the Harvard Business Review, still only six percent of women hold titles of chairman, president, chief executive officer and chief operating officer in Corporate America Fortune 500 companies, and only fifteen percent of the seats on the boards of directors are held by women. Similar numbers are reported in countries other than the United States. Why do we continue to see this ongoing resistance to women in roles of executive leadership? Via anecdotal and survey evidence as discussed in a Harvard article titled, "Women and the Vision Thing" which was recently showcased by INSEAD , there appears to be two main reasons:

  • Women struggle to have the leadership qualities that most associate with senior leaders, particularly visionary thinking; and 
  • Women are still expected to juggle work and family, while men are devoted to the office.

The traits accepted most prevalently by society that connote leadership are more frequently associated with men than women.  Many female leaders struggle to reconcile qualities people prefer in women (compassion for others) with qualities people think leaders need to succeed (assertion, control, and vision). In this Harvard article, authors Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru discuss how women scored lower on “envisioning” – the ability to recognize new opportunities and trends in the environment and develop a new strategic direction for an enterprise.

The question becomes though, is lack of visioning capabilities in women a perception or reality? Consider, however, that there was one particular group responsible for bringing the envisioning scores of women down – their male peers (who, by the way, also represented the majority of their peers in the survey sample).  So, who really says women aren’t visionary?

These assertive, controlling and visionary traits are associated in most people’s minds with effective leadershipperhaps because a long history of male domination of leadership roles has made it difficult to separate male stereotypes from desirable leader characteristics.  Yet, when women display these behaviors, they are viewed by others as deceitful, pushy, selfish, and abrasive.  Accordingly, female leaders often struggle to cultivate an appropriate and effective leadership style—one that reconciles qualities people prefer in women with the qualities people think leaders need to succeed. 

In the words of a female leader written about in a Human Resource Practice newsletter, she said, “I think that there is a real penalty for a woman who behaves like a man.  The men don’t like her and the women don’t either.”  Furthermore, women (still more so than men) are the ones who interrupt their careers and daily work schedules to handle work/family trade-offs.  Overloaded, they lack time to engage in the social networking essential to advancement.  Perhaps, the most destructive result of the work/family balancing act is that it leaves very little time for socializing with colleagues and building professional networks – a critical requirement of effective leadership (referred to in year’s past as the “boy’s club”). The social capital that accrues from such "non-essential" parts of work turns out to be quite essential indeed. 

Harvard Business Review’s article titled “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership” offers the following description of managers who advanced rapidly in hierarchies 

Fast-track managers "spent relatively more time and effort socializing, politicking, and interacting with outsiders than did their less successful counterparts…[and]…did not give much time or attention to the traditional management activities of planning, decision making, and controlling or to the human resource management activities of motivating/reinforcing, staffing, training/developing, and managing conflict."   

This suggests that social capital is even more necessary to leaders' advancement than skillful performance of traditional managerial and leadership tasks. Women can gain from strong and supportive mentoring and coaching relationships and connections with powerful networks . 

What It All Means

While most companies still aren’t taking steps to integrate women into senior leadership ranks, there is financial return for doing so. This financial ROI was discussed in my previous blog and specifically cited in McKinsey studies as shared on the CIMA Global website.   Additionally, IBM (with offices all over the world), over the past 10 years, has seen a 393 percent increase in the number of its women executives. It is our belief that in 2011, we will see more and more “IBM-like” companies committing to an investment in the development of their female leaders in order to reap the financial returns that they can then expect from the gender diversity that they have created in their senior leadership ranks.    

What’s Your Opinion

What actions can a company take to improve the gender balance of its leadership ranks?  

I welcome your thoughts and the opportunity to continue this discussion with you.  Please write to me at barb.arth@bersin.com.


Andrea Derler

Andrea Derler, Ph.D., joined Bersin by Deloitte in March 2015 and leads the Leadership & Succession Management research practice. She brings international work experience as leadership trainer & coach and a solid academic background to this role. Prior to joining Bersin, she collaborated closely with organizations in the USA as well as Europe in order to pursue practice-oriented leadership research. Andrea studied international management, organizational culture and integral leadership and facilitated leadership development efforts in a variety of industries. She holds a doctoral degree in Economics (Leadership & Organization), and a Master’s degree in Philosophy. Her work about leaders’ Ideal Employee recently received wide-spread media attention in Europe and was published in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal

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