While women make up about half of the workforce, there is a huge gender gap in leadership positions nationwide. Francesca Gino, a Harvard Business School professor, points out that women only represent 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 15 percent of executive officers at those companies, less than 20 percent of full professors in the natural sciences, and 6 percent of partners in venture capital firms.
As recently reported in Scientific American, scholars of the leadership gap suggest that some of the explanation for the gap directly correlates to how people perceive and react to women, and the fact that compared to men, women are perceived as less competent and lacking leadership potential. Women also receive fewer job offers and lower starting salaries, and are more likely to encounter challenges to, and skepticism of, their ideas and abilities.
New research also points out that women simply may not want to take on the task of leadership. While we may be on the right track working to get more women into leadership roles, we need to look at how appealing those positions actually are. Summing up a paper by Hilke Brockmann and her colleagues, Gino writes that overall, women seem to be significantly less enthused about the prospect of being a manager, and more likely to take a significant hit to their happiness should they be elevated to such a position, than men.
Brockmann’s research demonstrates that for women in positions of leadership, the level of happiness and life satisfaction is lower than that of their male counterparts, and when it comes to advancement, women may, “Find the position to be as attainable as men do, but less desirable. The reason is that they see the position generating not only positive outcomes (such as money and prestige) as much as men do, but also negative ones (such as tradeoffs they’ll need to make and time constraints). That’s where men and women differ: in how much they predict these negative outcomes will affect their lives.”
Whether it’s a concern about the loss of flexibility, goals outside of the workplace, family constraints, gender based discrimination, or sexism, there are things that companies can do to address the issue directly. Gino writes that organizations can influence a woman’s decision by structuring and compensating managerial work differently, building in more breathing space for leadership positions, and allowing for flexible career paths.
When women don’t try for promotions, they move us further away from parity and reinforce the idea that women don’t belong in leadership roles. Women must rise into top positions in order to advance gender equality. Here are three things that we can work towards immediately to make leadership positions in the workplace more appealing to women, and move us closer to parity.
Flexibility – Flexibility needs to work. People with adaptable work environments – both men and women – tend to have healthier habits with time for both self-improvement and family and friends, which makes them more productive and efficient when they work. Flexibility doesn’t just benefit women’s work performance. Research has looked at more subjective areas affected by schedule flexibility, including people’s happiness and satisfaction. Studies show that when people can choose to do things, like take their kids to school, sleep in or help their spouse that they’ll enjoy better relationships, a better quality of life, and be happier with their employment.
Establish a Mentor Program – A good mentor provides career advice, counsel during stressful times, and unwavering support. And you don’t have to be a member of the C-suite already to provide guidance to another woman. We can all build strong support systems, encourage and mentor one another every day. The benefits of mentoring flow both ways and both mentor and mentoree learn from each other. Successful women are guiding others through the ranks and sharing their experiences. Mentoring relationships can provide the boost to propel mid-career women into top management positions.
Provide Routine Feedback – One area that is frustrating for women is a lack of feedback. Feedback is critical for improving performance, but despite asking for informal feedback as often as men do, a 2015 study found women receive it less frequently. Direct feedback helps employees take the steps they need to improve their performance and advance. And we all know that without clear, actionable advice and performance feedback, women aren’t able to see a clear possibility for change or a way to reach the next level in the workplace, which can be very frustrating. Following established criteria and clearly identifying key issues and potential for growth will lead women to invest more fully in the workplace, not to mention the fact that providing specific feedback can help us close the gap and create a path forward for all women.
We need women to see the path to leadership clearly and without hesitation. While this latest study shows that some of the reasons women aren’t rising to the leadership challenge go beyond potential discrimination and access to resources, if we build firm foundations in the workplace, well qualified women may decide to go for it, and to take the leadership positions. We need to level the playing field and create a workplace that encourages women to seek top positions and advance gender equality.