Why More Women Don’t Advance to Senior Leadership, and What to Do About It

While writing my books Make Room For Her and It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor as well as serving as a leadership development coach, I have met hundreds of high-potential women who are eager to take on more leadership responsibility. These bright, hardworking professionals exhibit many of the characteristics of high achievement that companies seek in leaders. What’s more, many organizations have developed a robust pipeline of competent women with clear leadership ability, after investing in training and development for these potential female candidates.
Despite this optimistic scenario, I’ve noticed that when women reach this moment of truth that holds the key to their advancement to higher-level leadership, something happens. Maybe they decide not to apply for the job, receive the responsibility but not the executive title, or just get passed over. What exactly is going on that is keeping women from moving up?
I’ve discovered four factors that I believe contribute to this predicament:
  • Society’s biases and assumptions. While times have changed, much of society still operates under a framework of traditional biases and assumptions that put men and women in separate “boxes” when it comes to leadership potential, instead of a single common box of potential leadership ability. This approach limits the possibilities to achieve a balanced leadership model that values and integrates the unique attributes of both genders.
  • Women’s “Sticky Floors.” Another challenge is that some women are held back by their own self-limiting assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors. I call these internal limitations that can keep women from achieving their key career goals and reaching higher levels of leadership “Sticky Floors.” In my first book, I defined the concept of Sticky Floors for women in middle management. I think it’s important to now also explore “Sticky Floors 2.0”—what holds women back from higher-level leadership positions—since this involves new challenges and opportunities.
  • Men not understanding their role in women’s leadership. Another factor that holds women back from roles in senior leadership relates to the fact that men play a significant role in this situation. If you think about it, how could they not, given that most executive leaders are men? Men clearly can influence the number of women in leadership, for better or for worse. I don’t believe that men in general intentionally try to keep women from advancing, but I instead subscribe to the view that many men are simply unaware of the significance of their role in women’s advancement, and thus fail to understand that they can be a big part of the solution.
  • Organizations not committing to the business case. While some organizations have dotted their “i’s” and crossed their “t’s” when it comes to providing leadership development and diversity training to female candidates, it’s not enough. Even if an organization’s leadership pipeline is filled with a diverse slate of qualified candidates, if companies have not truly bought into the business case for advancing more women to the executive ranks and have not made their leadership teams accountable for women’s advancement, then it won’t happen.
So what is the solution? If we simply sit back and wait for corporate cultures to advance more women to senior-level positions, it will take 400 years for women to reach parity with men at the rate we are going! As much as I’ve heard leaders talk about creating inclusive work environments and gender-balanced teams to drive business results, I just don’t see enough companies “walking the talk.” Together we all—women, men, and organizations—must now intentionally move from conversation to action if we ever hope to achieve the right leadership balance.
That means that womenmust take responsibility for their own careeradvancement by looking within, acknowledging their leadership attributes, and then confidently taking a seat at the table. Men, who are in the best position to play a crucial role in helping women advance into leadership, must begin to actively advocate for high-potential women while offering their insights, coaching, and mentoring/sponsorship. And organizationsmust take the next step—after investing in and developing a leadership pipeline of competent women—to address the reasons that women aren’t being promoted to leadership positions, and proactively seek ways to advance more women. In the end, this is not just a challenge for women but everyone’s challenge, and everyone must be part of the solution.
Looking for Rebecca Shambaugh to keynote on Leadership Best Practices for the 21st Century? Visitwww.rebeccashambaugh.com.
To learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s integrated solutions and programs for both existing and current leaders, visit www.shambaughleadership.com. Want to accelerate the development and advancement of your women leaders and executives? If so visit http://www.shambaughleadership.com/our_programs/womens_leadership/ to learn more about our Women’s Leadership Program.   
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Rebecca Shambaugh

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