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How to build female leaders

July 4, 2015
Diversity & Inclusion
Women hold 40 per cent of all MBAs and constitute more than half of all college grads, and studies show that young women are sailing into the work force brimming with the confidence to someday reach a top management position. Yet, how is it that women still only represent only 5 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOS and 17 per cent of members on boards?
The 2014 U.S. gender parity research study conducted by Bain & Company revealed a telling juxtaposition that may shed light on this discouraging discrepancy. As they gain experience, women’s confidence mysteriously falls by more than half, and their aspirations dwindle. Young men and women entering the work force in their early 20s report being equally confident in their abilities. However, at that early stage, 43 per cent of women aspire to top management, as opposed to 34 per cent of men. Yet, interestingly, after as little as two years on the job, 34 per cent of men still report a desire to reach a top management position, while the percentage of women aspiring to the same echelon drops to 16 per cent (marital and parental status did not significantly alter findings).
If these statistics represent fairly what’s going on out there in the real world of corporate America, what hope do we have to really change the unequal gender parity trajectory?
Many of us have read in the media all the reasons women step back in their careers instead of “leaning in.” They take themselves out of the game too soon and don’t take charge of their careers often or rigorously enough. They feel conflicted about their ability to have it all and are unsure if the demands of work can be integrated well enough with the realities of parenting. Moreover, their self-confidence begins to dwindle very early on as they adopt what I call the “Sticky Foot Syndrome,” where women’s internal obstacles lead them to lower their expectations of themselves and wonder if they really have what it takes.
But let’s not place the blame solely on women. After all, the game is stacked against them; not everywhere or in every pocket of every company certainly, but as a whole. There are still far too many companies that don’t pay their male and female employees equally, and many an Executive Suite and Boardroom are run almost exclusively by men.
Everyone is talking about this issue, yet no one seems to have the answer. I don’t believe there is a quick solution to this issue, and I do believe it will take rigor, commitment and time to make a shift. As with any large change initiative, it will most likely be very challenging.
What can be done about it so that more women can step into effective leadership roles? The solution includes a three-pronged strategy:
Women: We need to teach women to step into leadership in new ways and learn to develop and consistently apply the confidence, mojo, and skills to prepare them for a strong leadership future. We need to create a safe, confidential place and community where women can connect, work on developing themselves, and learn to fly without restrictions. I am proud to say we have developed just this kind of experience with our Women’s Leadership Retreats.
Men: We all know men need to be included in the conversation to shift ingrained unconscious beliefs, behaviours, and actions and to guide them in knowing when and how to support, intervene, and sponsor their promising women leaders. This is difficult, as the “like attracts like” culture that has permeated business for centuries, propelling businessmen to hire and promote men like themselves, excludes women by definition and historical practice.
Organization: If we are really going to make progress on this issue, we have to change an organization’s culture by integrating new processes that support the growth and development and promotion of women into the current systems and processes, like hiring, succession planning, performance management, and talent management.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix pill, but working diligently in these three areas will help us lay the foundation and build the framework for effective women’s leadership going forward.
Wendy Capland, CEO and founder of Vision Quest Consulting, is an internationally recognized leadership development expert, best-selling author of the book Your Next Bold Move for Women, and the leading authority on “Stepping into Leadership.”
By Wendy Capland

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