Why do we always opt in for the number two position when we can get the number one position? Why don’t we sit at the head of the table when the seat is open?
Why do we get blamed for failure when it’s a job that’s impossible? These are questions that we have to ask ourselves.
While we may be placing different expectations on ourselves, there are also stereotypes that are holding us back.
It’s no secret that female leaders are treated differently from their male counterparts. The bias is real: If you ask people who is better suited to “lead a massive organizational change,” the majority of people will say a man, according to The Unstereotyped Mindset study conducted by The Female Quotient for Unilever.
When a women gets appointed to the CEO position for a company turnaround and fails, the perception is often because she was distracted by personal factors such as caregiving duties. When a man is appointed to CEO for a turnaround, the perception is often that the company simply couldn’t be saved. Take former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who was largely to blame for the company continuing its downward spiral.
The research backs this up. An analysis of news coverage of CEOs by the Rockefeller Foundation found not only that the media covered the personal lives of female CEOs more frequently than male CEOs, but that 80% of news stories pegged the blame for failed company turnarounds to CEOs when they were women, compared to just 31% when they were men.
I talked to some women who have sat at the head of large, successful companies, and other women about the career path not taken. Here are some thoughts about what needs to change when it comes to overcoming stereotypes surrounding female leaders.
Women are willing to take the risk. Other studies show that women are more likely to be picked for senior leadership positions when companies are in crisis or at high risk of failing. There’s even a term for this phenomenon: The glass cliff.
“With company turnarounds, there isn’t as much competition for the CEO spot, so women may be more likely to take on the challenge because they see it as their big chance to lead,” says Elaine Kunda, founder of Disruption Ventures, a VC fund that invests in female founded and managed companies, and former CEO of companies including Ziplocal and B5Media. “When you have less options, you take what you can get.”
The truth is that life stage matters—no matter your gender. There is no one-size fits all: The decisions each woman makes about work and life are deeply personal. When Jennifer Kohl was offered the top position after the CEO of the fledgling company where she previously worked resigned, she was seven months pregnant with her first child.
“For me, given I was about to give birth to my first child, and the fact that my mother was also suffering from an ongoing illness, I felt the only answer was to decline,” says Kohl. “I did it, however, with a very heavy heart. Because I knew I could do this job and I knew I would be great at it. What I didn’t know is what sort of sacrifice I would have to make for my family to have that job.” (Today Kohl has since moved on from that company to become SVP of Integrated Media at the successful company VMLY&R).
Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, the first woman to hold the position, has said in a CNBC.com article, “I’ve been blessed with an amazing career, but if I’m being honest, there have been moments I wish I’d spent more time with my children and family.” She stated spending more time with her family as a factor when stepping down.
Unfortunately, jobs have been set up as an either/or scenario when it comes to work and family, but it should be an “and.” We need to make workplace adjustments in order to accommodate life stage needs. This will help everyone rise to the top at work while also being able to succeed at home.
Rewrite the rules. There are other biases that women face in the workplace, but the number one bias that all women face is about family and career.
That is the biggest reason why women fall out of the messy middle. What typically happens for women in middle management is one of three things: 1. They rise to the top but have work-life balance issues. 2. They leave the workforce completely to raise their families. 3. They leave to start their own company, which is what I did.
I wanted to write my own rules and make the exception the new norm. So I created the uncorporate rules. I undid everything I hated about the corporate world. I accommodated for life stages, since employees have different needs at different times in their life, such as when they’re raising young kids or caring for an aging parent.
It’s about rewriting the rules so that everyone can thrive and bring their best selves to work. If we keep following the rules of the workplace that were written 100 years when women weren’t largely in the workplace, we won’t get ahead.
Don’t listen to that voice in your head, just say yes, and then figure out how to make it work by writing your own rules. You can have a successful life that includes both career and family.
Flip the balance. It’s also a leadership issue. If you think about the C-suite and the board, leadership remains predominantly male, and that dictates the decision-making power and a woman’s ability to execute on her strategy. Female CEOs are still the minority at that table. Having at least 30% women in the C-suite and on the board is when we’ll see a real flipping point.
Track progress. At the rate we’re going, it will take 202 years to close the global gender pay gap. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait that long! We have to start treating equality as a metric just like any other business goal. It’s not only good for company culture, but also for the bottom line.
“I think we’re making progress, but I don’t think we’re making it nearly fast enough,” says Andi Owen, CEO of Herman Miller, the global designer and furniture manufacturer. “The fact remains that there still aren’t enough women in key positions. As a society we need to measure equality in order to change it. This goes not only for women in the workplace, but for all diversity and points of view.”
The “first” lays the path for the rest of us to follow. Being the first is always scary, whether it’s being the first female CEO at your company or the first woman to run for office in your city.
I always say that being uncomfortable is like wearing a new pair of high heels. The first time you wear them, they pinch. But the more you wear those shoes, the more comfortable they get. We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and just say yes.
It’s the next generation that will close all these gaps. It’s our responsibility now to open up all these conversations and opportunities, so the next generation of female leaders can come in and be the change we want to see—which is women in the C-suite.
By Shelley Zalis
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