In 1980, there were no female senior executives in the top 100 businesses in America.
In 1994, there were no female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (Pew).
By 2015, women held 14% of the top five leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies (CNN).
In 2016, there were 21 female CEOs, or roughly 4% of the overall (Fortune).
This is, most certainly, progress.
It can be tempting to view such advances for women in the workplace with satisfaction and even complacency. Women are making it.
EXCEPT, women also make up 51% of the population of the United States. They earn more than half of all bachelor’s degrees (57%), master’s degrees (60%), and doctorates (52%) (Catalyst). Women represent 47% of the U.S. labor force. But they only hold 14% of the top jobs.
And, to make matters worse, in the past decade, women’s growth into managerial roles has stalled. Women outnumber men in lower and middle management, but have diminished representation in senior positions.
This inequity is not just a drag on female morale, it is bad business. According to a comprehensive global study of thousands of firms from over 95 countries, advancing women’s equality in the workplace could add $12 trillion to the global GDP (McKinsey). The presence of female top executives is consistently associated with greater company performance and profitability. Data suggests that when profitable companies employed women in even 30% of leadership team positions, this corresponded with as much as a 15% increase in net revenue (Peterson). This growth make sense. A leadership team should reflect the population it serves. A group with diverse backgrounds and experience leads to more thoughtful deliberations and decisions. The natural result of a gender diverse team is expanded reach to both male and female customers, clients, and consumers. True diversity grows the bottom line. Gender diversity is not just equitable, it is profitable.
Despite all of this, most businesses are not investing in women as leaders. 62% of all companies do not currently have leadership development programs for women (Brandon Hall Group), and the few that do tend to focus on work-life balance. So we stand at an important crossroads, with women poised to take on greater leadership within companies and businesses urged by global research that such female leadership is a sound financial investment. Governments, too, have begun to take action. Pay equity legislation and increased public scrutiny are driving more wage transparency. Now, more than ever before, women are becoming aware of their collective power.
Organizations first must confront the unconscious biases embedded in hiring and promotion, where men are typically promoted based on potential, while women are advanced based on performance. Organizations will need to challenge decades of assumptions that suggest men are better natural leaders, despite years of research that confirms both men and women make effective managers (Pew). And these biases are not limited to men. For example, both men and women prefer to hire men for positions in Science and Technology fields, even when female candidates have equivalent skills and resumes.
But, aspiring female executives women should not have to wait for corporate and societal changes for career advancement. Women can build skills they need to increase their success and work together to make the larger organizational changes. Based upon the findings of our book, The Orange Line: A Woman’s Guide to Integrating Career, Family, and Life, in which we interviewed over 100 female professional, mid-level workers from across the US, and from fields as diverse as government, manufacturing, sales, and medicine, there are three areas upon which women should focus:
1. Showcase their value. We found that women often kept their heads down and got the work done. The result? Others were less aware of the value women were providing. We teach women how to quantify their worth by tying it to the bottom line. And once they understand the value their work brings to the organization, we offer techniques to share that value through confident self-promotion. Without hubris or bragging, women can share how their work has also brought benefit to others on the team.
2. Understand their own unconscious biases. Negative assumptions about women in the workplace are not limited to men. As women, we must uncover and reframe our own biases about our work performance and capabilities. For example, our research suggests that women tend to see perfectionism as an asset. Women, more than men, are likely to believe in a perfect standard for work that makes failures, even small ones, socially unacceptable. Many women would rather aim low and overachieve rather than aim high and fall short. In this way, perfectionism is actually a liability. Our approach is to identify unconscious biases and reframe them so women can succeed. For example, in the case of perfectionism, we teach new mantras – “Done is better than perfect.” “Be motivated by a passion for success rather than a fear of failure.” “Delegate, delegate, delegate.”
3. Develop core proficiencies. Women are more than capable of shining in any organization. But being a female leader also comes with its own set of challenges. In our courses, we hone in on the specific skills that successful women leaders point to as critical to career advancement, including thinking strategically about networking, mentorship, negotiating, and work-life balance.
As women take individual responsibility for building their own skills, they can also use this toolkit to help shift their team and elevate their peers. Women might sponsor another woman – or man’s – leadership journey. In this way, individual growth begets institutional change. As a woman unearths her own biases and unlocks her potential, the organization can do the same.
Check out Orange Grove Consulting’s Women’s Leadership courses found on OpenSesame to get more women into your organization’s pipeline today.
About the Authors
Kelly Watson is Managing Partner of Orange Grove Consulting, an innovative training & leadership development consultancy focused on helping women and organizations eliminate outdated “rules” and structures so they can achieve wage and job parity. A seasoned Consultant in Organizational Development, Marketing, and Operations, Kelly works with clients such as The Walt Disney Company, Bobrick Washroom Equipment, and VCA Animal Hospitals.
Kelly is also the co-author of, “The Orange Line: A Woman’s Guide to Integrating Career, Family, & Life” which was published in May 2013.
Prior to her years of consulting, Kelly was VP Marketing for Telecom New Zealand USA where she launched two ventures: a long distance telephone company and an international call center for the company. She has also held operational leadership roles at Merisel, Inc. a Fortune 500 technology company, including managing $5 million in inventory for their largest product lines.
A mother of three, Kelly coordinates the Junior Achievement program in the El Segundo Unified School District, teaching children about entrepreneurship and financial literacy. She also coaches and referees youth soccer, where she holds senior board positions for both AYSO and Strikers FC South Bay. Kelly also has co-chaired the El Segundo PTA Run for Education 5k race, completed several marathons, and plays pickup soccer.
Kelly holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada and an MBA from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where she was recognized with high honors as a member of both Beta Gamma Sigma and Alpha Sigma Nu.