Lisa has her MBA and leads the HR department at her company, but often feels that her ideas are dismissed or she's talked over by other members of her company's leadership team. She's sometimes able to regain traction and put her recommendations forward, while at other times feels frustrated that she's not given her fair turn to share or complete her thoughts. She believes she shouldn't have to work harder than her male peers to simply be acknowledged as a contributing member of the senior team. And she sometimes sees similar patterns with other female leaders that leave her feeling demotivated and concerned about an uneven playing field.
There are likely broader forces at play that Lisa may not be aware of. While the trajectory of female leadership over the past century is nothing short of astonishing, there remains a significant underrepresentation of women in the executive suite and on boards of directors. The reasons are many, from destructive cultural conditioning and reinforcement of negative cultural messaging to implicit bias and an ardent defense of the status quo. Still, it's not enough to allow female leadership to grow organically; we have to "push the river" to achieve gains that face stiff resistance on multiple fronts. The need has never been greater to redefine the future of work as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic to establish a new normal going forward.
Implicit Bias and the Glass Ceiling Are Real
To face the challenges at hand, we have to first acknowledge them—some so ingrained in our culture that we may not have thought to examine them. Consider the fairy tales we've been told as children, starting with the roles of princes and princesses. Princes have a positive affiliation of honor, bravery and morality, and in many ways are associated with the verbs protect, vanquish and conquer. The concept of the princess, in contrast, often creates impressions of helplessness, entitlement and fickleness. And the verb that princesses most often are associated with is wait—waiting to be saved, rescued or delivered from some type of evil force that only the prince can defeat.
"Impressions in the workplace typically follow suit," said Christine Porath, professor of management at Georgetown University and author of Mastering Civility (Balance, 2016) and Mastering Community (Balance, 2022). "Masculinity is typically associated with strength, assertiveness, ambition, confidence, independence and aggressiveness, while femininity typically brings ideas to mind traits that include sensitivity, modesty and selflessness. The takeaways are that men may make for better leaders and decision makers, while women may lack the 'killer instinct' required in today's tough business environment, which potentially skews the narrative for women's potential."
This imbalance is compounded by the fact that the feminine narrative includes assumptions about motherhood, which can conflict with the leadership narrative in the workplace. "Mommy discrimination" and the "motherhood penalty" can stem from assumptions that women will always put their families first, which, by definition, means their jobs must come second. Comments about female employees being "distracted by motherhood" are bad enough, but to make matters worse, research shows it's the opposite with men: Male employees with children tend to be paid more and promoted more quickly "because they have a family to feed."
The end result is an accumulation of disadvantage, where lower salaries and slower promotion rates create real-world differences in men's versus women's career progression, especially over multiple decades. The critical lack of representation in the C-suite and at the board level limits corporate America's ability to innovate and compete. U.S. companies need to step up and create the optimal conditions for women in our workforce to master the demands of career and family. Though systems and ways of thinking are slow to change, the progressive values of Millennials and Generation Z can help push the river in a new direction, focusing on diversity of thought, ideas and voices.
Moving from the X-Axis to the Y-Axis
We're all probably familiar with the succession planning 9-box grid that evaluates employees on both their performance (x-axis) and potential (y-axis). What research tells us is that men are evaluated much more on their potential and women are evaluated on their performance and experience. Said another way, men are assessed on the y-axis of the 9-box diagram, while women tend to be evaluated on the x-axis. Add to this the fact that men tend to apply for promotions when they possess 60 percent of the qualifications for a particular role, but women tend to apply when they possess in excess of 90 percent of the required qualifications, and you can again see where the roadblocks occur.
As Stacey Vanek Smith's book Machiavelli for Women (Gallery Books, 2021) points out, studies show that confidence has a much greater impact on a person's career than almost anything else—including competence. Yet women, on average, are about half as confident as men when it comes to self-promotion.
"The most practical solutions for female workers and executives lie in embracing the action verbs that are so often associated with their male counterparts," advised Kim Congdon, global vice president of human resources and talent management at Herbalife Nutrition in Torrance, Calif. "Women are frustrated because they see their male counterparts advancing faster than them. Without the confidence to ask how to continue to grow and advance in their careers, women fall behind. What comes next, they work even harder to demonstrate their value but still don't speak up for themselves and are passed over again. Leaders need to take the initiative in holding ongoing career discussions with both men and women. Empowering women to be open about their career aspirations is simply the right thing to do as well as an outstanding talent development strategy."
"The simplest way to move from the performance to the potential side of the equation is to ask for feedback," Porath said. "Nearly all of us have blind spots. By improving your self-awareness, you can grow personally and professionally. You may not always like the feedback that you hear, but it gets us thinking and provides an opportunity to contemplate and recalibrate. You can't fix what you're not aware of."
Other commonsense approaches to embracing the "active[AC1] verbs" of career development include:
- Quantify your achievements. List bullet points of your constructive accomplishments that are tied to increased revenue or decreased expenses in terms of dollars, percentages or saved time. (Nothing creates greater confidence than concrete achievements.)
- Develop your own informal board of directors for career advice and guidance.
- Lighten up on control (i.e., micro-management) and perfectionism; instead, keep the broader picture and bigger goals in mind at all times.
- Adjust to 60 percent thinking. You don't have to "have it all" in order to apply for a promotion; look at your career in terms of stretch assignments and challenges.
- Surround yourself with a can-do tribe; build and maintain your professional network.
- Pay it forward. Become a mentor to others.
"Cinderella taught us an important lesson: If they're not going to invite you to the ball, there's no reason to keep scrubbing the floors," Congdon said. "Find new ways of garnering achievements and adding value to get that invitation. But know in your heart that you are no more or less deserving than anyone else."
But the onus shouldn't be all on women. Companies could and should do more, including supporting women-in-leadership employee resource groups, sponsoring community activities that help young girls see their value and potential, and conducting gender pay equity and internal promotion audits to ensure fair and consistent pay practices across the organization. With so much change before us as we emerge from the pandemic and find our way back to work with new and heightened expectations, we have a unique opportunity to influence the workplace like never before.
Focusing on the growing half of our workplace population—female talent—offers the greatest return on investment and potential boon to all that corporate America is capable of becoming. As for Lisa, in her role as head of human resources for her organization, she can see herself as both the driver and beneficiary of such healthy change. She needs to start the conversation, invite men and women to the table to discuss appropriate initiatives, and move the organization's cultural needle in a new and exciting direction.
Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a SHRM Online columnist and has served in a range of senior HR roles at such companies as Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Time Warner and City of Hope Medical Center. He's a member of the SHRM Speakers Bureau, a corporate leadership trainer, certified executive coach and author of the five-book Paul Falcone Workplace Leadership Series (HarperCollins Leadership and Amacom). Other bestsellers include 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.