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The Bumpy Path to Leadership for Women

A woman in a suit giving a presentation.
​Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage, a women's leadership development firm in Alexandria, Va., speaks on April 18 at the SHRM Talent Conference & Expo 2023 in Orlando. Photo by Chris Williams/Zoeica Images

​Historically, women have held fewer leadership positions than men.

Federal data shows that women account for 47 percent of the U.S. workforce but just 31 percent of top executive roles. Many factors contribute to this discrepancy, including the reality that women face challenges that men do not when attempting to advance their careers.

However, both women and men in executive positions can help reverse this trend in a myriad of ways, according to Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage, a women's leadership development firm acquired by SHRM in 2022.

"It is up to all of us to change the face of leadership," she said. "Men, we can't do this without you."

McCollum spoke about the unique path and hurdles that women face as they ascend the leadership ranks, as well as the role of companies in supporting their professional goals, during her session at the SHRM Talent Conference & Expo 2023 in Orlando on April 17.

The Exhaustion of Meeting Stereotypes

McCollum, author of the upcoming book In Her Own Voice: A Woman's Rise to CEO: Overcoming Hurdles to Change the Face of Leadership (BenBella Books, 2023), began by discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic had devastating effects on working women.

Women lost millions of jobs in 2020 largely because many were in the industries most impacted by the pandemic, such as hospitality, tourism and retail. McCollum said many left their jobs by necessity because women are more likely than men to feel responsible for a "second shift," which can include child care, elder care and house care.

Those still in the workforce constantly shift between fulfilling the expectations of being seen as a stereotypical leader—displaying traditionally male characteristics such as aggressiveness and competitiveness—and the expectations of being a woman—displaying traditionally female characteristics like being kind, cooperative and collaborative.

"For women, this burden is being seen as one or the other, not both," she said. "If we're too feminine, we're not 'tough or strong enough for the big job,' but if we're too masculine, we're too 'ambitious or aggressive.' "

These stressors have led to high rates of burnout: In 2022, about 43 percent of women reported burnout compared with 31 percent of men, according to a report on women in the workplace by and McKinsey & Co.

"Women are even more burned out than we were a year ago," McCollum said. "The gap in the burnout rate between men and women has doubled."

Women Are Making Some Progress in Leadership Roles

Advancing women is good for business.

Research shows that companies with women well-represented in executive roles are more likely to outperform their male peers and have been shown to achieve greater effectiveness, employee retention and client satisfaction.

McCollum said women make "very effective leaders," especially considering leaders are now expected to be inclusive, open, transparent, empathetic and vulnerable. These characteristics are often seen in female leaders.

But, as she noted, these traits often do not help women ascend into executive roles. For example, women make up more than 70 percent of the health care workforce but hold just 25 percent of leadership positions in the health care industry.

"The path to leadership for women is different," McCollum said. "The hurdles are higher."

There has been some progress: For the first time, more than 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women—although just 1 percent of the total are women of color. And the number of women at the C-suite level has increased by nearly 7 percent in the past five years.

"We're progressing, even if it's not as fast as we would like," McCollum said. "But we need to see those statistics evolve faster because the business case is so clear for diversity in leadership."

Women Still Lack Sponsorship, Support Systems

McCollum explained that female leaders perform better, stay at their companies longer and advance professionally when organizations address several critical dimensions:

Culture. Do women feel valued and respected in the organization?

People systems and processes. Do women have equal opportunities in the hiring process, access to stretch assignments or promotions?

Executive action. Are the executives taking action to support and sponsor women in the organization?

Focused leadership development. Does the organization provide effective development for women?

Women historically have not received the same support as men in the form of feedback, coaching and mentorship. The benefits of sponsorship, in particular, can enable women to receive critical feedback, advance in their careers and feel a sense of belonging at work, McCollum said.

However, a report by Harvard Business Review indicated that many companies have halted formal sponsorship programs, citing pushback from executives who feel they are being asked to advocate for people they either don't know well or don't think are ready.

A lack of sponsorship can keep women from fulfilling their professional potential, McCollum suggested.

"It's natural to hire, engage, support and promote people who look like you," she said. "But unless we do something different, the leadership majority will stay the majority for many more years."


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