In this article, Alexia Vernon provides actionable strategies for organisations to develop their next generation female leaders. Grounding her recommendations in research and real-world examples, she demystifies what holds women back from positioning themselves for senior leadership opportunities and what companies can do to ensure that qualified women do not leak out of their pipelines by making significant shifts in how they develop their high potential women.
While there is ample evidence that companies across industries and sectors do better when there are women in senior leadership positions, unfortunately in Europe, and even in the United States, the lack of female corporate leaders is staggering. Only 3% of the largest publicly listed companies in the EU have a female CEO, and only 7% have a female chairperson of the board. Across the Atlantic, in the US, women hold less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEO roles and comprise only 19% of board seats.
When discussing this lack of representation, the questions that often emerge are, not very surprisingly, Why are there not more women in senior leadership roles? As well as, How do we create more corporate female leaders?[ms-protect-content id=”9932″]
When these questions are the focal point for inquiry, the answers that emerge are often: create more mentorship opportunities for mid-level women, address corporate pay inequity, or engage in more diverse corporate leadership recruitment to fill open senior positions. Rarely does the question I’m more interested in answering come up: Why do so many experienced, highly educated women not believe they are ready to lead?
Why Don’t More Women See Themselves as Leaders?
In one of the most frequently referenced books on women and work, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Sandberg points to the reality that while both men and women experience self-doubt about their abilities, for women the fear of being seen as a fraud is significantly more pronounced. As she reveals, “Multiple studies in multiple industries show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is…and in situations where a man and a women each receive negative feedback, the woman’s self-confidence and self-esteem drop to a much greater degree”.1
In their book How Remarkable Women Lead, authors Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston attribute this fear of stepping into leadership as “the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t problem.”2 Too many women who know they want to lead have seen others who speak up and out “get branded as aggressive, difficult, self-promoting.”
Current research into women’s lack of representation in business and political leadership is increasingly pointing to unconscious gender bias as a key, contributing factor. From traditional male traits that are privileged over female ones to male names, pronouns and interests used in conversation and company culture, men and women are failing to see the presence not only of women but also of the feminine. And as a result, women are failing to see themselves in spaces that are marked male and masculine. Sadly, this bias starts early. In Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common report, Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases, Harvard’s research of approximately 20,000 students revealed that 59 percent of young people surveyed preferred the idea of a male student council leader to a female one.3
How Do We Give High Potential Women What They Need to Succeed?
We can, and must, bring male and female leaders together to call out and address gender bias, overt or unconscious, wherever it exists. Even more importantly, if we are truly serious about filling our leadership pipelines with women, we must fundamentally alter how we prepare women to lead as a result of these real and at times self-imposed barriers. We must create learning opportunities and learning environments where women can gain confidence and competence in who they are as leaders in order for them to learn how to lead their way.
This work happens best in single-sex environments where women are able to speak candidly about both the systematic and internal gender struggles they encounter at work, in the home and in their communities, avoid gendered stereotypes of what effective leadership looks like, and refine the communication skills needed to step into leadership.
The Sudikoff Family Institute for Education and New Media, through collaboration with UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, published a comprehensive study of how over 6000 female graduates of single-sex secondary schools faired in college. While the women consistently earned higher SAT scores and felt more engaged in their classes and their professors, what is perhaps most noteworthy is the difference in confidence.
81 percent of female graduates of independent single-sex schools rate themselves “above average” or in the “highest 10 percent” for academic ability, compared to 75 percent of women graduates of independent coeducational schools.” And nearly 60 percent of women graduates of independent single-sex schools rate themselves “above average” or in the “highest 10 percent” with regard to intellectual self-confidence, compared to 54 percent of their independent coeducational school counterparts”.4
And this confidence stays with young women beyond their college years. In the US, graduates of women’s colleges and universities make-up more than 20% of women in Congress, and they represent approximately 30% of Businessweek’s list of rising women in corporate America. Yet despite the growing recognition that young women both feel more confident and have higher rates of aspiration and achievement when they attend girls’ schools, there hasn’t been tremendous movement to take these principles and apply them to developing professional women’s leadership skills.
Women’s Leadership Development – From Theory to Practice
To develop strong female leaders, participants must be able to get up on their feet, put into practice what they are learning about themselves and how to lead others, and receive real-time feedback to solidify and when necessary refine their leadership skills. This is where most well intentioned women’s leadership development programs fall short. Too many are built from conferences or mentorship programs where participating women are passive recipients of advice given by others. Unfortunately, as we know from the field of learning and development, learning transfer does not happen effectively this way. While expert leadership advice has a place, if high potential women are to believe they are capable of leading, they need the rehearsal space to see their leadership in action.
In McKinsey & Company’s Remarkable Women Program, participants have the opportunity to engage in experiential learning opportunities. Participating women are able to try out the behaviors and skills they are learning in real-time and receive coaching and feedback on areas where they can improve. The curriculum is holistic – in addition to studying the art and science of leading participants also develop their emotional intelligence, particularly in the area of self-awareness, so that they can more effectively play to their strengths, enhance their resilience, and overcome their limitations. And, once mastering their own self-leadership, more effectively lead others.
In Influencer Academy, the women’s leadership program that I lead, women from across industries and sectors have the opportunity to go through a curriculum that develops their skills in such critical leadership areas as identifying and playing to one’s strengths, developing one’s interpersonal communication skills, public speaking, stepping into thought leadership, coaching, navigating through difficult conversations, facilitating learning for others, persuasion and negotiation. While there are opportunities to learn from and build mutually beneficial relationships with program alumni and executives in the community who champion the program, the priority is for participants to role play the conversations, presentations and coaching and consensus building skills they need to employ in their work in simulated situations. Just like MBA programs at the Harvard Business School and IESE Business School task their students with examining difficult business issues and devising and arguing on behalf of their solutions, women’s leadership programs must similarly utilise real-world scenarios and provide opportunities to role play behaviors and communication.
What Executive Women Can Teach Us
As I’ve created my own incubator for women’s leadership success, I’ve become somewhat obsessed about examining what executive women believe has contributed to their achievement. In my dozens of firsthand interviews with women in industries ranging from hospitality and technology to public relations and social enterprise, four key themes have emerged.
First, every single one of the executive women who I have spoken with sees herself as the protagonist in the story of her life. While some of these executive women have impressive pedigrees, a few did not complete college. Others encountered teen pregnancy and in some cases grew up economically disadvantaged. Nonetheless, these women believe that success is the inevitable product of hard work and consistently tell stories and engage in self-talk that sets them up to shift setbacks into catalysts for future success.
Second, each woman spoke of her success as the byproduct of the people in her work life – people senior, lateral and junior. All report benefitting from relationships with men who have championed them in their careers, and all spoke about developing teams whose collective success enabled their individual success.
Third, each woman believed a primary contributing factor to her success was her ability to respond effectively to feedback. Whether feedback was solicited or thrust upon them, whether it was in praise of their work or critical of it, each interviewed woman spoke about her ability to receive the feedback with little to no emotion and, after reflection, apply it without personalising it.
Fourth, each woman spoke about times in her career where she was uncomfortable. From salary negotiations to project pitches to addressing boards to being the dissenting opinion on a big decision, each spoke about her ability to accept that discomfort is part of leadership and had cultivated the ability to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Where Do We Go From Here?
While more and more organisations are recognising that their senior leadership is disproportionately male, whether organisations will make the right investments to create a pipeline that empowers women to lead is less clear. For companies who want to set their high potential women up for success, it’s important to prioritise three key things. Women’s leadership development should happen in single sex environments. It should incorporate opportunities to develop real-world leadership skills through case studies and role playing difficult situations. And, just as importantly, it needs to address inner work as much as outward leadership. From arguing on behalf of an idea to developing mutually beneficial relationships, from being comfortable being uncomfortable to seeing one’s self as the protagonist in her career and in the story of her life, women are hungry for leadership development opportunities that are as holistic as they are practical.
About the Author
Alexia Vernon is the Founder and Director of Influencer Academy, a women’s leadership development program based in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Branded a “Moxie Maven” by the White House Office of Public Engagement, Alexia is an in-demand keynote speaker, trainer and consultant on developing next generation female leaders. Alexia has been featured by media such as CNN, NBC, the Wall Street Journal, Inc., and Forbes.
1. Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York, NY: Random House) p. 29.
2. Barsh, J & Cranston, S. (2009). How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life (New York, NY: Crown) p. 197.
3. Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project (2015) Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases. http://sites.gse.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/making-caring-common/files/mcc_leanout_report.pdf.
4. UCLA’s Sudikoff Family Institute for Education and New Media (2009) Women Graduates of Single-Sex and Coeducational High Schools. https://sudikoff.gseis.ucla.edu/archive/pdfs/genderstudies/Summary_SingleSexEd_Sax.pdf.[/ms-protect-content]