Breaking Through the Gender Barrier—You Can’t Do It Alone

Last week, I had the welcome opportunity to participate in a rich dialogue with Cathy Engelbert, who was recently appointed Chief Executive Officer for Deloitte LLP. I congratulated Cathy for becoming the first women in a professional services firm to take the helm as CEO, thus serving as a role model for many future female leaders.

Our conversation, which focused on the perennial topic of how to advance women in leadership, took place at the St. Regis in New York alongside 20 other women executives who have powerful roles in the Capital Markets sector. Several of these women have seats on notable corporate boards. Throughout the discussion, I was reminded about the importance of integrated leadership to women’s career advancement. To break through the gender barrier, women and men both need to play a significant role, as do organizations.

During the exchange, Cathy noted that her appointment didn’t “just happen,” nor was her goal to become the CEO specifically—her aspirations were simply to develop into a great leader who had significant impact. Cathy noted that her advancement to the C-level was in part due to the mindset she cultivated, experiences she tackled, and leadership qualities she exhibited; however, she recognized that her own actions did not reflect the whole equation. She credited Deloitte’s commitment to gender strategies—through programs like its Women’s Initiative (WIN)—as another key factor that provided women like herself with significant opportunities to grow and advance.

Alongside Deloitte’s Women’s Initiative, Cathy added that cultural changes in the company were also important to help foster women’s advancement. Deloitte built in measurable goals for its leaders and ensured that women had executive-level female role models, which helped aspiring women leaders see that they too could rise to higher levels. Cathy said that once the company started institutionalizing cultural changes and managing what they measured, a visible shift occurred, with more women advancing into key roles throughout the company.

As detailed in my latest book Make Room for Her, men also are integral to the success of creating more balanced leadership in any organization. Cathy attributed finding the right male mentors and sponsors as another key factor to her success, and suggested that women need to prioritize building these partnerships with men to garner their support and advocacy.

Beyond an organization’s commitment and the role played by men in women’s advancement, SHAMBAUGH’s research has also shown that women themselves also must take steps to facilitate their own career success. Cathy shared the following key principles for other women who aspire to join the executive suite:

  • Seek new opportunities and take risks. Sometimes it can feel easier to keep doing what you’re doing instead of taking on additional projects that might make you more promotable. While it may seem risky to step outside of your comfort zone by raising your hand for higher-level assignments, Cathy noted that being proactive about seeking the right new opportunities at your company can lead to bigger things down the road. In Cathy’s case, she took the opportunity to try out different roles within Deloitte—including working in their national office doing accounting research and then leveraging that experience to build a niche in financial instruments—which led her in a new career direction toward the C-level. The key point here is that Cathy raised her hand and asked for the opportunity versus waiting for someone to tap her for it. Having a “yes I can” mindset enabled her to believe in herself, which allowed her to build her confidence and expand her brand and reputation, ultimately putting her on the path to partner and now CEO.
  • Don’t make excuses about living your whole life. Most women have priorities outside the office, whether related to family responsibilities or other personal projects. Yet some women feel guilty when needing to take care of business that’s not related to their job or career. Cathy believes that it’s important to overcome such guilt and “own” who you are as a whole person as well as a professional, in order to serve as a strong role model for other women in your company. She explained that she learned some time ago when raising her children that it was important to not succumb to guilt or make up stories or excuses for leaving early to coach her daughter’s basketball team, go to her daughter’s dance recital, or attend her son’s Little League team, since taking ownership of your actions around work-life balance can have a large impact on other up-and-coming leaders. Cathy emphasized that she didn’t realize how closely others in the company watched her as a female role model, and the impact she would have by, for example, sending an email late at night. Understanding this impact now, she never sends company email outside of work hours, and “walks the talk” by letting her teams know when she is leaving early for family activities and other outside obligations rather than giving another reason for her departure.
  • Ask for what you want. Failure to ask is a big Sticky Floor for many women that can have a limiting effect on their ability to achieve their career goals. Cathy advised women to ask for what they want and need, stating that those who fail to do so will likely face job dissatisfaction. Not asking means not receiving—and if you lack needed support, flexibility, opportunities, or resources, you can’t be at your best in your role, which is a loss for your organization as well as for you personally. Cathy advises that when you ask for what you need from your employer—whether it’s greater flexibility or additional resources—you should back up your request with hard data to build a solid business case. To learn more about how to do this, check out SHAMBAUGH’s Women in Leadership and Learning Program (WILL).
  • Address gender bias. Cathy and the other attendees believe that gender bias still exists in Corporate America and hinders not only opportunities to develop and advance our female leaders, but also the overall performance, engagement, and innovation of our organizations. The group discussed a number of best practices, but the bottom line is that we need to challenge our organizations, corporate boards, and leaders to tackle gender biases alongside women and men to achieve true integrated leadership. The key is to commit to providing the right awareness and training for all leaders and managers to examine their own biases and build a culture of inclusion that supports integrated leadership. Only by doing so can we embrace and leverage the best of both genders and harness the broader spectrum of diverse talent. As we’ve seen from countless studies now, this is no longer just a nice thing to do but a business imperative.

On a final more personal note to those who care about impacting our next generation of female leaders, another interesting finding emerged from this group discussion. When I asked the women seated around the table, including Cathy, if they had participated in sports while growing up, every single one of them said yes. Research tells us that women who play sports in their youth build greater levels of confidence, enhance their competitive mindset, decrease their fear of losing, and bolster their confidence and can-do mindset. This is something to keep in mind when raising, teaching, or interacting with your daughters, female students, and other young women in your life.

I want to personally wish Cathy much continued success in her new role at Deloitte. I have no doubt that in addition to building on her own immense career achievements, she will also be very successful in inspiring and opening doors for other aspiring women who are poised to become our next generation of leaders.

Learn more about my 2015 speaking initiative that calls out the importance of having all voices on deck, allowing leadership to harness the broader spectrum of human talent and intelligence while combining the strength of both genders.

To learn more about how SHAMBAUGH can help you build inclusive/integrated leadership within your organization, or about SHAMBAUGH’s targeted women’s leadership development programs, executive coaching, and other core services, visit

Rebecca Shambaugh is author of the best-selling books “It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor,” “Leadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton,” and “Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results.”


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