ATD’s Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice spoke to Sapna Welsh and Caroline Kersten, partners at Leverage HR and authors of Worldly Women—The New Leadership Profile: How to Expatriate with Excellence
. Based on years of HR experience and global research, the authors have been able to identify various challenges women face in climbing the corporate ladder.
“First, they are often the minority in the room, and this has impact on confidence, communication, and networking. Second, they are rarely being looked at as a strategic and visionary leader. And the third challenge is dealing with societal expectations, such as: men are the breadwinners and women take on most of family and household tasks. This often leads working women to feel guilty, as they want to be the best in all areas, and of course, that is impossible,” Kersten says.
The authors explain, though, that women can adequately overcome such challenges if the organization they work for has three critical pillars in place. The first pillar is understanding that the female career cycle is different than men’s cycles.
“Men’s career trajectory tends to be more linear and women’s tends to be winding. As she moves higher up in her career, her professional life is becoming more demanding and her personal life frequently becomes more complicated. Organizations have an opportunity to take account of these differences when developing work-life balance policies, dual career policies, and so on.” Says Welsh.
Another pillar is that organizations need to have a culture that is conscientious of inadvertent gender biases and stereotypes. It is vital to raise awareness of these roadblocks, because these stereotypes and biases can prevent women from adequately preparing for leadership roles. And the third pillar is ensuring that there have strong female support networks, communities, affinity groups, and role models—internal and external.
“It is only after these three pillars are in place that organizations can address challenges women face when transitioning into leadership roles,” Welsh adds.
Kersten and Welsh have established four critical transition points where organizations can proactively boost their female leadership pipeline. Not surprisingly, the first point is at the start of their careers. Many women enter the workplace with limited experience, but they are both eager and ambitious.
“They’re young and have yet to build credibility and visibility for management roles. The funny thing is men are promoted based on potential, whereas women are more often promoted based on performance,” says Kersten. “Two actions that organizations can take are to have standardized talent review criteria to level the playing field. Then, organizations need to assess who is in pipeline, and how succession strategies are managed. In addition, women need to share their career aspirations to actively manage their careers.”
Another critical point—and one of the most difficult career junctures—is retaining women transitioning from mid-career to senior management. “This is when so many women are dropping out of the pipeline. A recent Forbes study wanted to determine why so many women left at this point. The supposition was they left to help ailing parents or to raise children. However, the study found many women were moving to non-profit organizations or starting their own businesses. Organizations have a lot to gain in being proactive in retaining these women. Women want to feel tied to a vision of their work. They have more of the top leadership competencies, but they’re not viewed as visionary or strategic. If businesses tie women more directly to the vision of organization, they’re more apt to stay with greater success and greater flexibility,” says Welsh.
In addition, many women decelerate their career to dedicate time to family. It is important for companies to reengage these women back into the leadership track. “If a women says ‘no’ to a leadership position because she wants to have a family, it doesn’t mean she won’t want to try for such a position later,” notes Kersten. “Many women in their 30s to 40s have stepped off the 60- to 70-hour week track to balance other things. They return with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm.”
The authors discuss how these women may need refreshers in some of their business knowledge and skills competencies, and they may have skills and knowledge that is different from what others may have. If they can sell those skills and competencies to organizations, it will increase the chances they’ll get back on the leadership track and make valuable contributions. “The crux is for organizations to keep connected to these women and help them into the leadership track, if they want to go there,” says Kersten.
The last transition point applies to women in international careers—the modest 20 percent of women are selected to expatriate. According to Welsh, “Living and working abroad and being in a new cultural environment is the most powerful development tool. At a managerial level (mid-career), many women are unable to take an international position, because of competing commitments. Companies should be encouraged to ask a woman at least three times in their careers if they want to take an international role, because the more women they get into the international role, the bigger talent pool they’ll have.”
Risks of Women Leaving Leadership Pipeline
There are a number of risks to women leaving the leadership pipeline. They leave companies with a meager leadership bench, especially when organizations are facing a leadership shortage. Additionally, there can be a lack of broad perspectives and the benefits that come from the diversity of thought.
“Learning leaders and those involved with talent development can improve retention of these women if they prepare them for these critical transitions. When this happens, transitions are made smoothly, effectiveness is increased, and women are more likely to stay the course. They know what to expect, and they are able to develop skills which will increase their effectiveness and the likelihood of their retention,” says Kersten.
Some of these skills relate to confident communication, building strategic alliances, credibility, and visibility among senior executives. Mastering these skills will enable women to operate effectively in a predominantly male environment. “Any person who wants to be effective basically has several big questions to answer. What is your goal? What are you trying to achieve? You have to know the answers to those questions. When women operate in male dominated environment, they must define their own goals, create alliances, sell their ideas, and hone their negotiation skills to influence others,” Kersten adds.
Again, Welsh states that it is important for organizations to understand that men and women build their careers differently. For instance, women build deeper and smaller networks, whereas men tend to have larger, more superficial networks. Understanding this will allow women to work more effectively in a male-dominated environment.
There are also gender differences in communication. “Neither men nor women communicate better, just differently. Women often tone down their message with weak words such as ‘could we’, ‘may we’ do this or that? Women may ask questions rather than make direct statements, and they are seen as weaker because of this. Additionally, when women typically speak passionately about a topic, men may perceive this as emotional. In a male-dominated company, such differences may be perceived as less effective and less confident. Thus, women may want to tweak their style in order to appear more confident,” advises Welsh.
Finally, research shows that upward to 40 percent of women dedicate a large amount of their time and energy to other commitments. If you add these people to all the additional women who left the leadership track somewhere in their career, we’re looking at a healthy talent pool that organizations cannot afford to lose.
What to Do
As mentioned before, in order to retain women in the leadership pipeline, organizations must have three critical pillars in place. In particular, they can make the greatest impact on retaining women during key transitions, by offering training, workshops, and transition assessments. To this end, Leverage HR recently introduced the Women’s Transition Barriers Assessment (WTBA), a tool that results in a personalized risk assessment, which enables women to manage successful career transitions. The results also serve as a good foundation when coaching women transitioning to a new role.
In addition to actions organizations can take, Welsh points out a few basic actions women can take to get back onto the leadership career track if that is what she wants. “Identify your career goals; know what you want. I suggest retaining a professional coach to help you refine these. Leaders are found everywhere, and if you feel your current leadership credentials are lacking, become an active leader in your children’s school, in your religious organization, in clubs, or charities. These organizations will benefit from your leadership skills and allow you to fine tune those skills.”
As the authors mentioned before, it is crucial to brush up on technical skills. Knowing the tools of your trade is fundamental. One suggestion from Kersten and Welsh is to take a university course on your professional specialty. Another key action women can pursue is volunteering. For instance, Catchafire matches professionally skilled volunteers with nonprofits and social enterprises.
Finally, Welsh advises women leaders to speak to other professionals in their industry. “Create a personal branding strategy. Define yourself, so when you step outside of a room people will remember you the way you want to be remembered. Review and revive your professional resume and eliminate those that aren’t active in your network. Meet with people who are active in your business; share your interest and your personal brand with them,” she says.
“One thing I’d like to reiterate is, based on years of research and consulting with clients around the world, we found there is a high risk of women leaving their organization during four key professional transitions. The financial costs of this drain are enormous. Companies have to actively seek ways of keeping women in the leadership pipeline. It’s doable, and something organizations must make a top priority,” says Welsh.