What’s Holding Women Back from the C-Suite

Peggy-HazardBy Peggy Hazard, Managing Principal and Co-Lead Advancing Women Practice, Korn Ferry

Women have made significant advances in attaining higher levels of leadership in organizations; however, they still are far behind men when it comes to the most senior levels. There are many factors involved, but research shows that one key reason is that women do not obtain leadership experiences considered most critical in the C-Suite. In fact, research by Korn Ferry, a leadership and talent consulting services company, shows that when women get to the senior ranks, they are often one full level behind their male colleagues in certain types of leadership experience.

While women rank higher overall in competencies, the study shows they do not gain the experience in challenging or difficult situations, business growth, financials, strategy and high visibility that are most sought after in the C-Suite. It also shows that while men and women report similar motivations to advance their careers, women say “no” to these important opportunities more often due to concerns about being under-qualified and having work/life balance—which may be why men have an advantage when they are considered for promotion.

A Joint Effort

What is to be done? First, avoid the most common pitfall of focusing efforts only on “fixing” women while ignoring leaders’ behaviors and a culture that perpetuates the status quo. Leading-edge companies who have moved the needle on gender balance recognize that to drive and sustain change, men and women must “lean in together.” Individuals, managers, leaders and the organization must all share the responsibility and take action.

A Better Bottom Line

This is not just a fairness issue or “just the right thing to do.” In a hypercompetitive world, organizations need to become more agile to optimize and leverage all talent. And women represent a significant underutilized source of key skills and insights for tapping markets wherein women are disproportionate and/or increasingly decision makers. Korn Ferry’s research found women generally score higher than men in 17 critical leadership skills including cooperating and other interpersonal ones, courage, and drive. “What they are missing are financial and strategic skills, both of which are mission critical at the executive level and ones that men seek out during mid-level and business unit level roles,” said J. Evelyn Orr, senior director of the Korn Ferry Institute and editor of Korn Ferry’s research on women in leadership.

Additionally, having female leaders across the organization and at the top has a direct correlation with better financial return. McKinsey’s 2013 Women Matter study measured a 41 percent higher return on equity and a 56 percent higher earnings before interest and taxes margin for companies that have the largest share of women on their executive committees.

Organizations have strong incentives to develop their female leaders. To do so, organizations and women must work together to ensure that women are adequately prepared to assume senior roles and leaders create a culture where they can thrive.

Change the Status Quo

Here are three steps organizational leaders can take:

  1. Speak up. Be a vocal supporter about the need to be conscious about gender when interviewing and promoting a diverse slate of candidates and hold leaders accountable for these actions. Strong messaging and role modeling from the senior leadership team has a greater impact on an organization adopting a new awareness than individual initiatives that are driven by HR.
  2. Be proactive. Identify and break the unconscious defaults (judgments, preferences, decisions) that cause or perpetuate headwinds for women. This may include taking the time to question whether bias or double standards are at play in talent selection, evaluations (written comments often reveal double standards) succession planning discussions, and team power dynamics.
  3. Strive for gender balance. Seek to have women fairly represented in key assignments, high profile committees and key executive roles, and be sure that you are developing and sponsoring women. Verbalize support and confidence in them, as the system may not work in their favor.

Step Up and Stand Out

Here are three things women can do to ensure you obtain the necessary experience as you move upward in your careers:

  1. Plan your career. It’s surprising how many people have not stopped to consider what’s important to them and what they want for their careers. But women (and men) need to take the time to pause and really figure out what matters most inside and outside of work, and what you are willing to do to achieve your priorities.
  2. Identify and develop required experiences, competencies and skills. What got you here will not get you there. The challenges and competencies needed in a more advanced role are different from those needed in your current one. Influencing and relational confidence and skill become increasingly important, and doing so at higher levels requires different approaches. Actively seek insights and feedback about the unwritten rules, about how you are perceived, about what you will need to adjust, and what could be potential obstacles to success.
  3. Seek sponsors and advocates as well as multiple mentors. One of the most powerful assets for career advancement is having sponsors who help their “protégé” advance by introducing them to key stakeholders, positioning them for key assignments and talking them up in talent discussions and succession meetings. While women tend to have mentors, far fewer have sponsors than men. Leaders tend to sponsor those who they are convinced will succeed and drive results, so women need to be sure they get straight feedback on how they are perceived, how best to “show up,” and what experiences will have the highest impact on the business.

Women remain a hidden power source for most companies. Organizations that lean in together and develop the leadership agility to cultivate and leverage their talents will gain competitive advantage.

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  • Rebecca Shambaugh

    I significant obstacle for talented female leaders to rise to the senior ranks is the lack of leadership agility and strategic acumen which Peggy addresses. It will take an integrated approach including the organization, women and men to shift mindsets on traditional roles for women. Organization’s talent development/ succession plans need to hold leaders accountable for identifying and placing “qualified” female leaders in these opportunities/ roles. Just as important women to demonstrate their grit and seek out and take stretch opportunities/ roles that will be out of their comfort zone. Hopefully more to come!! Becky Shambaugh, President SHAMBAUGH, Author, Speaker on 21st Century Leadership – Women in Leadership