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Journey to the C-Suite: the Issue of Upward Mobility

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In 2015, only 17.9 percent of Fortune 1000 companies had women on their boards, and only one of 87 new CEOs of the largest companies in the U.S. or Canada was a woman, a decline for the third year and the lowest point since 2004. Despite the increase in visibility to the issue of women’s mobility to the C-Suite – from Marissa Mayer’s ascent to CEO of Yahoo to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” initiative, these recent findings demonstrate the opposite of progress.

To many, these findings might also seem surprising. After all, one recent study estimated gender parity could add $12 trillion to the global economy, while others have found that companies with women on their boards outperform those with all-male boards, leading to an opportunity cost of $655 billion a year in the U.S., UK and India alone.

How can we best help advance not just the topic of female leadership, but demonstrate actual progress, and what can everyone — including men —do to foster equality in the workplace? Three notable leaders provide their perspectives on women’s leadership, what they have done to impact change and what should be focused on at the executive level.

In Depth

A recent study finds that women hold fewer roles leading to top management positions, are less likely to gain promotions than men and – given the pace of progress between 2012 and 2015 – are another century away from achieving gender parity in the C-suite.

Developing the leaders of the future

Of the issues raised in the study, one key finding is the number of women graduating with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics degrees. The study finds that not only are there relatively few today, but the number is falling. As the global skills shortage worsens, STEM-related expertise is increasingly in demand, including among senior leadership. The lack of women studying for STEM qualifications is likely to mean they will be hit particularly hard as workplace needs continue to shift in the digital age.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce, but comprise only 39 percent of chemists and material scientists, 28 percent of environmental scientists and geoscientists, 16 percent of chemical engineers and just 12 percent of civil engineers. Lisa Lambert, VP at Intel Capital and founder, CEO and chairman of UPWARD, says part of the reason for the decline in STEM degrees among women is the lack of encouragement at an early age – from grade school all the way through college.

Despite this continued underrepresentation in some fields, Lambert believes there are adequate numbers of women coming through the educational system to help businesses achieve greater gender parity in leadership. What is needed from organizations to help increase the number of female leaders in business is more concerted effort: “If a company is sincere about finding, recruiting and retaining women, they should look to diversifying their interviewers and follow universities with strong numbers of female graduates in the specific fields they are looking to recruit.”

Thriving in a male-dominated environment

Even when women have the right qualifications to succeed, they still have to contend with additional complexities in male-dominated work cultures in fields such as technology and financial services. “Regardless of whether there is malicious intent – and usually there isn’t – women employed in male-dominated industries might feel ostracized, especially if they are often one of a few women. This can mean there’s no camaraderie, no community they can build because they may be one of two, or the only one,” says Lambert. This kind of unconscious, cultural gender bias can be difficult to overcome

Lori Goltermann, CEO, Aon Risk Solutions, U.S. Retail, believes the key to changing this mindset in male-dominated fields begins with senior leaders. She explains that “while it is important for women to seek mentors and sponsors in their own organization – and throughout their careers – it starts with an organization’s executive leadership team in acknowledging the need for both formal and informal mentor and sponsorship programs.”

According to Goltermann, it’s important for leadership teams to “invest time in embracing the team’s talent and motivate them to grow in their roles, building a diverse group that brings qualified and unique skill sets to clients.”

Although commitments are needed at the executive leadership level, there are critical elements for the individual to embrace as well. Lambert, who started UPWARD as a non-profit organization to progress women’s careers by providing a network of senior-level women, feels it is vital to verbalize successes.

Owning accomplishments is critical to anyone’s career progression, a some studies have shown that women tend to be less assertive and vocal about their career development – especially when it comes to asking for promotions and raises. “Have an elevator pitch and practice it,” Lambert suggests. “Being visible and being vocal about your accomplishments is vitally important—if we’re not saying it, we won’t be known for it.”

Understanding strengths

Knowing what you’re looking for and taking the steps necessary to mobilize yourself upward is also essential to progressing in your career, Goltermann says.

“Whether male or female, your life map – what you’re looking to accomplish and how you plan on getting there – has a lot that goes into making up your qualities as an individual leader,” she says. “In my everyday role, I make an effort to support and celebrate the women that have made it to any leadership position.”

As captain of the Irish women’s rugby team*, Niamh Briggs knows something about what it takes to be a leader and motivating teams.

“Women can often tap into the emotional aspect of the task at hand and this can often get the best out of those around them,” she says. “I do ultimately believe, however, that this ability isn’t – or shouldn’t be – gender-specific. Natural leaders will come to the fore regardless of being male or female.”

To Briggs, leadership is not necessarily about management and simply overseeing others, but about the ability to influence and motivate those around you at all levels. “Traits such as work ethic, humility, passion and integrity – are critical to leaders,” and aren’t inherent to a single gender.

Networking solutions

General support from women in leadership positions is certainly useful in advancing the interests of women. But in a boardroom dominated by males, it can be difficult for women to champion the cause of adding more women to C-Suite positions.

A simple lack of access to strong networks, networks that tend to be male-dominated in specific industries is only part of the issue, but a critical one. Getting to the top corporate positions is only going to happen “if we have connections with people who know us, know our contributions and are willing to help us to get to the next level,” Lambert says. Lambert’s UPWARD organization attempts to help build this much-needed network.

Lambert believes it is critical for women to expand and extend their reach outside of their company, industry and even geography, “because there may be an opportunity that comes up and you won’t find out about if you’re not connected to somebody that might know about it.”

Goltermann shares this sentiment, adding that women should also consider the difference between mentorship and sponsorship as they advance in their careers. She cites her own career as an example. “My supervisor at my first job in the insurance industry took the time to explain the opportunities ahead of me – identifying my strengths and showing me what my future could look like if I dedicated the time and energy to the field.”

She believes this mindset needs to start at the very top.

“If executive leaders aren’t making a conscious decision to encourage diversity, it is likely not going to happen on its own,” Goltermann says. “A combination of trained, qualified talent that balances the skills sets of a diverse team can lead to a successful organization.”

*Since January 2014, Aon Ireland has been an official sponsor of the Irish Rugby Football Union Women’s Rugby Team

Talking Points

“Every woman I know, particularly the senior ones, has been called too aggressive at work. We know in gender blind studies that men are more aggressive in their offices than women. We know that. Yet we’re busy telling all the women that they’re too aggressive. That’s the issue.” – Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

“The human race is like a bird and it needs both wings to be able to fly. And, at the moment, one of its wings is clipped and we’re never going to be able to fly as high.” – Emma Watson, UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women

“To any world leader that tells me: ‘I’d love to, I just can’t do that with the current configuration’ …I say ‘Well, what are you doing to change that configuration and draw out those extraordinary women who can’t be the leaders we need them to be? This is the way the world needs to go and this is the way we’re going to make it go – together.” – Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

Further Reading

  • The Power of Parity: Advancing women’s equality in the United States, McKinsey Global Institute, April 2016
  • International Women’s Day: What is it, how did it start and why is it still needed?, The Telegraph, March 9, 2016
  • Glass ceilings prove hard to smash, Financial Times, May 8, 2016
  • The best – and worst – places to be a working woman, The Economist, March 3, 2016
  • The 2016 NAFE Top Companies for Executive Women, Working Mother, February 9, 2016