The rise of women in leadership over the past decade would not have been possible without the gritty, strong-minded, trailblazing female luminaries that came before them. Disruptors like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who fought for women’s right to vote, challengers like Kathryn Graham who became the first female to take the helm of a Fortune 500 company, and today’s leaders like Karen Lynch who oversees the $268 billion retail health care giant CVS Health have all boldly stormed into territory previously uncharted for women. Every woman behind these has benefitted from their refusal to accept the status quo.
For over 100 years, women have risen up and overturned old concepts and structures. So why are we still having conversations around ensuring women in the workplace are empowered? I believe they are already empowered. Women earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees in this country, women are 50.2% of the college educated workforce, and more working women than ever in history are earning six figure incomes. Women are getting a seat at the table, now we need to make sure that seat is positioning them for growth and allowing them to leverage all their skills and talents. Today’s problem is ensuring that workplace systems and rules of engagement originally designed by and for men evolve to meet the basic needs of everyone in the workplace. Going forward, the systems that don’t catch up – and the organizations that house them – will be left behind.
The courageous women who have successfully navigated outdated workplace systems have had to work harder than their male counterparts to prove themselves and gain the confidence of superiors. They have had to make more sacrifices personally and professionally to rise to the top. They are held to a higher standard than their male colleagues. They are more harshly judged and more likely blamed for underperformance. And they are granted less time to implement a new initiative before it’s discontinued, or the leadership of the initiative is re-assigned. This must stop.
Given societal and regulatory pressure on companies to seat more women on their boards and within their C-suites, key stakeholders and shareholders within those companies are starting to be more supportive of female leaders but too often that support is fragile and can be fleeting. The time is now for companies to take a hard look at the constructs within their organization and consider what changes are needed to better challenge, motivate, and support women in their workplace.
Here are 7 systematic organizational upgrades required to create the conditions for women to rise to positions of power sooner, meaningfully contribute to bottom line success, and attain long-term career sustainability.
- Organizational values that live out the principles of DE&I rather than paying lip service to it. Diversity, equity and inclusion are corporate buzz words and a much talked about priority for many organizations but it’s not being tracked and measured. According to Mercer, 81% of companies say they are trying to improve DE&I, yet only 64% track gender representation and fewer track hires, promotions, and exits by gender. The firm also found that only 42% of organizations have documented, multiyear DE&I strategies, and only 50% set formal D&I targets.
- Organizational cultures that reveal and address biases against high achieving women. A studyby Kieran Snyder, CEO of Textio, found that negative personality feedback showed up 76% of the time in reviews of women, while only in 2% of men’s reviews. The subtle undertones of bias appear when traits that are considered valuable for male leaders – straight forward, aggressive, driven – are often identified as a problematic for women. These types of biases must be identified and fixed to ensure they are not perpetuated.
- Organizational leaders that provide objective and meaningful feedback to women. Women are systemically less likely than men to receive feedback tied to outcomes when they receive both positive and constructive feedback. Women, like men, need a clear understanding of what they are doing well, how that is tied to results and what areas they need to improve to further contribute to the organization’s success.
- Organizational initiatives that intentionally create opportunities for women to lead in the early stages of their career. McKinsey & Company’s 2020 Women in the Workplace study identifies the “broken rung” as an obstacle to women attainting senior leadership positions. While progress has been made, women are far less likely than their male peers to be offered the first step up to a management role. The McKinsey study noted that for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted. For women of color, the statistics are even more concerning, only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted. As a result, before the pandemic, women held only 38 percent of manager-level positions while men held 62 percent. The impacts of the pandemic, which forced many women manager out of the workforce, have yet to be analyzed and could further amplify these troubling statistics.
- Organizational constructs that give women a clear and tangible understanding of their leadership strengths – earlier rather than later. Part of the “broken rung” phenomenon is the fact that women in their 20s often underestimate their leadership abilities, second guess themselves, and are less likely than men to apply for a better paying job if they don’t meet all of the qualifications. When, in fact, multiple studies demonstrate that women, even in the early stages of their career, are perceived as highly effective leaders when evaluated using a 360-degree leadership assessment. Without this clear and tangible feedback young female leaders are often blind to their strengths, underestimate their ability and second guess themselves.
- Organizational support and encouragement for women mentoring other women. Women who make it to the C-suite have one primary thing in common. They are products of being mentored by other women in the workplace and the return on the social capital of their networks. Most organizations don’t offer formal mentorship programs at all, much less women to women mentoring programs, so women need to be intentional about surrounding themselves with influential and inspiring female mentors and organizations need to encourage these programs.
- Organizational policies that embrace workplace flexibility. The pandemic has taught us that flexible work environments and schedules are not a deterrent to productivity and, in fact, can lead to increased productivity. Additionally, the pandemic highlighted the fact that when flexibility isn’t an option for women, they downshift their careers or exit the workplace all together. Flexibility is essential to a working parent’s success and career sustainability. The measure of success and opportunities for promotion should be based on results – not when or where the work was completed, or the number of hours punched on a clock.
Now is the time for leaders to take bold action to challenge outdated systems, confront old school organizational beliefs and values, and build a more sustainable future for all working Americans. Yes, women are empowered, but organizations must encourage them to pursue new opportunities, emphasize women’s contributions to corporate goals, and embolden women to seek out positions at the highest levels of the organization. The time has come for all leaders to use their power and influence to dismantle dysfunctional systems, build healthier workplace cultures and create more equitable opportunities for everyone in the organizations they lead.
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This article was originally published on Forbes.com on June 28, 2021