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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?

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Women Helping Women

This fall, I spoke at a leadership conference in San Francisco and was fortunate while I was there, to reconnect with a dear friend, Nancy Hayes. Nancy served as an executive in IBM for many years and is now the co-founder of MoolaHoop (www.moola-hoop.com) – a company whose mission is to help women owned businesses and entrepreneurs gain the tools and resources they need to grow their businesses. Nancy’s efforts are not only purposeful but they are also timely. Women owned businesses represent 30% of all new businesses in the US each year and they are growing at twice the rate of male owned businesses. Yet, when you look at funding, they get only 5% of venture capital funds and 12% of investment banking.

I asked Nancy how she and her partner actually help their female clients and she said, “I think we help women have a breakthrough by helping them figure out how to talk about their business/goal/mission in a way that others can relate to and then we show them how to build a community of following (social media/customer set) that will help grow their business. Helping people to clearly communicate is one of the biggest advantages you can give them.”

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Gender Balance ≠ Gender Equity

In my work with organizations across the country, I find there is a common misconception that having a gender-balanced workforce automatically leads to gender equity. The reality is that simply having a balance of men and women within an organization or on a leadership team does not mean that their strengths and skills are being equally utilized.

Harvard Business School discovered this same reality, as described in a recent article in the New York Times titled “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity.” Despite solid numbers of female students and faculty, Harvard found these women were not performing at a level commensurate with their potential. Female students entered the program with similar test scores and grades as men, but then consistently underperformed their male counterparts in classes where participation accounted for close to 50 percent of their grade. Administrators found that because the women tended to be less assertive in class than the men, professors had an unintentional gender bias that was reflected in the grades. Similarly, these unintentional gender biases had a negative impact on tenure among junior female professors. Students commonly perceived female professors to be less knowledgeable, experienced and authoritative than their male counterparts.

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The Hero’s Leadership Journey

I recently had the opportunity to speak at TEDxRockCreekPark, an independently organized TED event. It was a phenomenal experience to share the podium with incredibly diverse thought leaders, including neuroscientists, film makers and even a 13-year-old entrepreneur. The theme of the event was The Hero’s Journey, based on the idea by Joseph Campbell that each of us is on a hero’s journey. At times in life we find ourselves in a challenging situation, experience a revelation, and are transformed by the experience.

At first glance, the hero’s challenges appear to be external. Yet in actuality, the challenges heroes face are most often internal – it is their self-limiting beliefs and behaviors that prevent them from achieving their goals. Once they address and overcome these internal challenges, they are positively transformed and find the success they seek.

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Moving From Conversation to Action

Are you just giving "lip service" to the issue of women's advancement?

There has been a great deal of debate recently about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In (Knopf). Kudos to Sheryl for re-igniting the conversation about the shortage of women in senior leadership and for drawing national attention to this incredibly important topic. Now that we have debated the whos, the whys and the hows, it’s time to move forward. It’s time to move from conversation to action – to stop talking about advancing more women into senior leadership and start doing something about it.

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Integrated Leadership is a Three-Legged Stool

When I decided to write my latest book, Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results (McGraw-Hill, December 2012), my goal was to start a dialogue about the lack of women at the top levels of leadership. According to a recent New York Times article, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and former top State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter have the same goal. The need for this dialogue is clear: after decades of talking about gender diversity, women are still grossly under-represented in the senior leadership ranks. Even though women make 80% of purchasing decisions, comprise 51% of the workforce and hold close to 50% of all managerial positions in the Fortune 500, they represent as little as 15% of the executive suite and corporate boards.

In her forthcoming book Lean In (Knopf, March 2013), Sheryl Sandberg argues that the primary reason women are not advancing to the senior ranks is because they often inadvertently sabotage themselves. On the other side of the debate is Anne-Marie Slaughter, who places the blame for the lack of women in senior leadership with the organizations who employ them and with policymakers who fail to enact legislation to support them.

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What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

The recent announcement of Marissa Mayer as the new CEO of Yahoo made media headlines around the world. In fact, I received an unprecedented number of calls about her from reporters and radio talk-show producers – all asking me the same question – did I think Marissa could juggle being a CEO and new mother at the same time.  Could she really “have it all?”  My reaction was and still is…why not?

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Men’s Role in Integrated Leadership

We’ve been talking about gender (and cultural) diversity for years now. And yet, despite the fact that 50 percent of the workforce is comprised of women and that women are now graduating with twice as many degrees as men, women make up only 14 percent of senior executive roles. So what is going on here? Why are more women not advancing to the senior leadership ranks?

I realize that I run the risk of being politically incorrect when I say this, but I think men play a significant role in this situation. Quite frankly, how could they not? The vast majority of senior and executive leaders are men. Given their sheer numbers, one must logically conclude that men have some kind of impact or influence on the lack of women in leadership…but not in the way that you might think.

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What’s The Buzz About You?

I'm traveling a lot these days, meeting with SHAMBAUGH's clients across the country and around the globe. What keeps coming up in our conversations is how our business environment is rapidly changing and organizations are reinventing themselves in real time to ensure that their brand is aligned with both the changes and the opportunities.

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