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Linkage CEO: We Need to 'Change the Face of Leadership'

Linkage CEO Jennifer McCollum speaks Oct. 31 at the SHRM INCLUSION 2023 conference in Savannah, Ga.

​Jennifer McCollum wants to change the face of leadership—both literally and figuratively.

McCollum, the CEO of Linkage, a women's leadership development firm acquired by SHRM in 2022, strives to change society's perception of what the best leadership looks like. Part of that is having women in more leadership roles at all levels, particularly in the C-suite.

Women account for 47 percent of the U.S. workforce but just 28 percent of top executive roles. Several factors contribute to this discrepancy, including the reality that women face barriers that men do not when attempting to advance their careers.

"We need to get deeper into what it is women face on the path to leadership," McCollum said. "We need to understand those hurdles to help women overcome them."

McCollum, author of In Her Own Voice: A Woman's Rise to CEO: Overcoming Hurdles to Change the Face of Leadership (BenBella Books, 2023), discussed the unique challenges that women face as they ascend the leadership ranks and what companies can do to help advance their careers on Oct. 31 at SHRM INCLUSION 2023 in Savannah, Ga.

A Cupcake with a Razor Blade

In 1996, McCollum was in her 20s, ambitious and competitive. She was working for Coca-Cola's Olympic Torch Relay during the Olympic Games hosted in Atlanta.

"I needed to do my job well," she said. "So, I dug right in to win each day."

In describing McCollum's work ethic, a male professional who also worked the Olympics called her a "cupcake with a razor blade."

"It didn't feel like a compliment to me," McCollum recalled. "I was devastated. But it's only now, 27 years later, that I see it for what it was and still is—the double bind."

As she explained, if female employees are too kind and collaborative at work, they're viewed as not tough or strong enough for the big job. But if women are aggressive or competitive, then they're seen as too ambitious or aggressive.

"This toggling back and forth is something that is not required of male leaders," McCollum said.

Gardenia Jackson, a manager overseeing a national program with the U.S. government in Columbia, Md., who attended the session, applauded McCollum for bringing up the differences in how male and female leaders are perceived and that "it's OK to be both" assertive and compassionate.

"If a man is standing firm on something, they wouldn't be perceived negatively—unlike women," Jackson explained.

Such stereotypes in combination with personal responsibilities such as caring for children and other home responsibilities led to many women entering "full crisis mode" in the form of burnout and attrition in 2021 as the pandemic multiplied work and home stresses, McCollum noted.

She referred to recent data showing that 10.5 percent of women left their job in 2022 compared with just 9 percent of men. Burnout among women is a major reason why they're leaving the workplace at such high rates.

"It's such a seismic shift," McCollum said. "And while burnout is down in 2023, this exodus [among] women is still higher than [it is among] men."

Four Questions Employers Should Ask Themselves

A 2023 report revealed that women are being held back in their careers due to workplace phenomenon called "the broken rung"—the gender disparity in the first step up from entry level to manager, where women immediately lose ground to men in career advancement.

Women have made some progress, especially in boardrooms and at the CEO level. About 33 percent of public board appointments among Fortune 100 companies in January were women, McCollum said. But she noted that more can be done, referencing Linkage's strategic framework for advancing women as a way for companies to support women's careers:

  • Culture: Do the women in your organization feel valued and respected?
  • People systems and processes: Do women in your organization have equal opportunities?
  • Executive action: Are your organization's executives engaged in efforts
    to advance women?
  • Focused leadership development for women: Is your organization providing effective development for women?

Linkage surveys show that women largely say their companies make it possible for them to directly contribute to its success and that the organizational values are a good fit with their own. However, as women reach the director or senior director role, they are less likely than earlier in their career to recommend their organizations as "a great place for women leaders to work."

McCollum emphasized the need to create the environment where women can succeed. Women leaders perform better, stay at their companies longer and advance in their careers when they have opportunities for formal development, coaching and sponsorship, she said.

"Women deserve to be in an environment where they are celebrated, not tolerated," McCollum concluded. "It will take all of us to change the face of leadership."


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