How Can We Do Better for Women’s Leadership in 2016?

I recently read an inspiring post on the Catalyst website by two female GE managers, Cara Hume and Nancy Dunn. In the post, Hume and Dunn explained how asking the simple question “How can we do better” led their senior leadership team to make significant changes in the company’s policies, benefits, and culture this year.

The post explains how the pair had reflected with their boss, Susan Peters, senior VP of HR at GE, on their experience of trying to juggle and flex their work with the rest of their life. Peters challenged them to think about how the company could do better when it came to parental leave, family care, flexible work arrangements, and more.

In this case, the question “How can we do better?” led to the creation of a working group, which brainstormed a fresh approach to helping GE employees through all life and career stages. With support from Peters, the group’s recommendations were championed with the senior leadership team, resulting in a number of tangible changes at GE to make managing work-life challenges easier for employees. These included extending parental leave, making it easier to use flexible work arrangements, offering discounts for childcare, and shifting how senior executives manage time off.

The authors note that these results at GE prove the power of just asking, “Can’t we do better?” I applaud these executives and GE’s senior leadership team for “walking the talk.” And I’d like to extend the spirit of their challenge in 2016 to all companies who are trying to move the needle when it comes to women’s leadership and advancement.

As a company leader, as we enter the New Year, ask yourself, “What can we do better for women’s leadership in 2016?” Challenge your entire leadership team to take a fresh look at what’s holding your organization back from moving more women into senior management.

To help stimulate your brainstorming session, here are some areas that SHAMBAUGH has noticed many companies—as well as male and female executives—could do better:

  • Better communicate your business case. As explained in my book Make Room For Her, lack of a solid business case is what keeps many companies stuck with the status quo when filling senior leadership positions. One of the best business cases I’ve ever seen was clearly tied to the need for innovation in almost every industry. What drives innovation? Diversity of thought and perspective, which is much better achieved by a gender-balanced team using the principles of Integrated Leadership.
  • Create a more inclusive culture. Another way to bring about the type of thinking needed for successful 21st-century leadership is by fostering a balanced and diverse culture. Every company should strive to embrace the different viewpoints, unique perspectives, and individual style of professionalism that each person brings to the table. Organizations should also focus on cultivating a culture of accountability that clearly links to business outcomes.
  • Do a better job at leveraging gender-balanced leadership. Research by SHAMBAUGH and other organizations has proven the obvious: that men and women aren’t the same when it comes to how they think, communicate, make decisions, negotiate, and resolve conflicts. Companies that recognize these differences and unique value that each gender brings—and then learn to value and leverage them—will begin to reap the benefits of incorporating a broader range of thinking. Without a true appreciation for these unique gender-based approaches to leadership, men, women, and companies will continue to hit an impasse in terms of capitalizing on these differences.
  • Men: get better at recognizing your biases. Most people don’t think they have biases, but everyone is biased on some level by their own frame of reference. When it comes to gender bias, it’s important for men to increase their awareness of how their assumptions about professional women may inadvertently keep women in their organization from advancing. In Make Room For Her, I address many of the most common biases that show up when women are being considered for the top jobs, such as beliefs that women are too emotional, aren’t strategic enough, and are poor negotiators. Biases held by men regarding women may not be intentional. But the more that men can recognize their biases with intentionality, the better we will be able to tap and leverage gender intelligence, and eventually close the gender gap.
  • Women: get better at asking for what you want. As I noted in Harvard Business Review last month, getting what you want requires asking for it. Yet many women feel uncomfortable about asserting their needs and preferences with their boss or other senior leaders who could help advance their career. In my book It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor, I discuss in detail why asking can be so difficult, and specifically what gets in the way of women “making the ask.” The bottom line is: it’s important to get over those issues and just do it. When you stand in your power and ask for what you want, you’ll learn what you can really have.

Send me your thoughts on what you think we can do better in 2016, and how together women, men, and organizations can keep moving the needle forward when it comes to women’s leadership.

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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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