How can it be that in 2013, women currently hold just 10%-15% of the senior leadership (C-Suite) positions in corporate America?
And why haven’t we made more progress, given that women now represent 58% of our college graduates and hold 50% of middle-management positions – with 40% holding positions that include purchasing authority?
I could go on and on, listing the statistics.
And we often do, especially when we celebrate the progress, influence and contribution women make to both our businesses and our society.
But, as someone who has spent much of her career in positions that focused on the advancement and inclusion of women, I am as perplexed and curious as you are when it comes to the reasons why female leadership at the senior levels of American companies has plateaued.
Yes, of course, there has been progress along the way; and, yes, today we have more female leaders than a generation ago, but only a very small portion is sitting at the top of organizations. And, to make matters worse, the conversations we are having about gender and work today are the very same conversations we were having when I was President Clinton’s advisor on women’s issues in the White House during the mid-1990s.
The flat-line that characterizes critical career mobility for women actually began 15 years ago; and it has extended itself into the second decade of the 21st century, despite energetic and exemplary efforts by committed CEOs and their companies. These progressive and pragmatic front-runners of the private sector are promoting women into leadership roles based on potential and ability; and they are trying hard to keep the best and brightest female talent in their organizations moving in the right direction – upwards. Still, even these platinum enterprises fall short, with numbers in the 20%-25% range for women in senior leadership.
Looking beyond the numbers, though, both women and men in organizations find themselves in a confused – and even conflicted – workplace today.
Confused, because gender behavior and stereotyped male-female roles in companies create uncertainty on how to be; and confused, because we have mixed reactions and there are judgments when we observe men acting like men, women acting like women, women acting like men, or men acting like women.
We reach for programs and initiatives that might help us, and some – such as sponsorship, flexibility and accountability – most definitely do.
But corporate leaders and their teams are frustrated by the lack of gender progress as well as the gender tension (both overt and covert) that still permeates organizations. All of this drains energy and emotion – and, even worse, engagement – from our companies.
The backdrop here, as we all know, is that the world has changed significantly. Savvy business leaders today understand that they must have a workforce that reflects the current and future workplace and customer. The good news is that we have just about reached consensus and the vast majority of corporate CEOs no longer ask “why” they should include and advance women in their organizations.
Talent is a key motivator right now, and, beyond equity and fairness, most CEOs agree that in today’s competitive global marketplace they must harness the top-tier talent in their midst to survive and remain competitive and profitable. They also know that women bring a very rich set of skills and attributes that are extremely beneficial. The female perspective often leads to wiser decisions, and the rich relationship skills that women leaders offer frequently result in happier employees and deeper client connections.
So, we may understand the “why,” but it’s increasingly clear that there’s a giant hole in the “how” – how to include, keep and advance women in organizations.
Too often, what passes for gender efforts inside corporate America becomes a series of discussions in which women find themselves talking to women. I know from my own experience that my goal was often to merely get sign-off, budget and resources from leadership to move my agenda on women forward within the organization. For many of us in this field, this has been a meaningful and productive strategy, but it hasn’t been woven into the fabric of the organization. And, on many occasions, a committed CEO, with the best of intentions, has gone away believing that this support, plus periodic face-time, was sufficient.
What we know for sure is that what got us here won’t get us there. The old saying is true: Insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results.
But to get a different result – to truly support, retain and promote women in the workplace – shouldn’t we be engaging men in the conversation as full partners?
I believe the answer is yes; I believe that men are not the problem; and I believe that men are a key factor in the productive solution.
That’s why engaging men in the advancement of women is the new frontier for every company in America that wants to compete and grow in the 21st century.
Betsy Myers is currently the founding director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University. A leadership expert, author and advocate, she is also speaking at and convening workshops around the world on the changing nature of leadership and women's leadership. Her book, “Take the Lead – Motivate, Inspire, and Bring Out the Best in Yourself and Everyone Around You,” was released in September 2011. Her experience spans the corporate, political and higher education arena. As executive director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, she focused the center's teaching and research around personal leadership. Senior adviser to two U.S. presidents, she was most recently the COO and chair of Women for President Obama’s 2008 national presidential campaign. During the Clinton Administration, she launched, and was the first director of, the White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach. She also served as the director of the Office of Women's Business Ownership at the SBA. Prior to joining the Clinton Administration, she spent six years building Myers Insurance and Financial Services in Los Angeles specializing in the small business and women's market. She received her Bachelor's degree in Business Administration from the University of San Diego and her Master's degree in Public Administration from Harvard's Kennedy School, where she was also a Public Service Fellow.