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Helping Female Leaders Succeed: Seven Best Practices

by Liz O’Donnell (Boston)

Women may be less likely to encounter blatant sexism on the job than in prior years, but a recent study suggests “modern sexism” is still keeping women from achieving the highest level of success in corporate America. Modern sexism is often defined as a more subtle form of discrimination that is deeply ingrained in a corporate culture and can be as, if not more, damaging than overt acts of gender bias. Authored by chief scientist Ann Howard and senior vice president Richard Wellins of Development Dimensions International, a consulting firm, the study is titled “Holding Women Back: Troubling Discoveries and Best Practices for Helping Female Leaders Succeed.”

Howard and Wellins’ work points out that despite the fact women represent more than half of all employees in the U.S. and the fact that women are graduating from high schools and colleges at a higher rate than men, they are not being promoted to high-level positions at the same rate as men. In fact, as women advance in their careers from early management to senior management, the number of women leaders drop off significantly.

This decrease in women leaders at the top of organizations is caused by a  mixture of assumptions about what women want in regard to career and family and ingrained discriminatory behaviors that can go unnoticed. For example, many organizations identify “high potential” employees to be groomed for leadership roles. The selection process is often casual and lacks transparency. As a result, top managers — usually men — select those who they best identify with – usually other men. As one ex-Wall Street woman explained, “My last company was a subsidiary of a larger organization so there were not a lot of formal training programs. But there were lots of golf outings and sporting events.” She says that men, and not women, associated were invited to attend these events.  “I didn’t think it was blatant discrimination but inaccurate assumptions (that women didn’t want to participate) that shut women out.”

The study gives some practical advice for businesses interested in correcting the gender imbalance at the top levels of leadership.

  1. Formalize Succession Planning: Succession planning should start from the bottom of the organization and it should include objective evaluations;
  2. Recognize Performance Equally: Organizations should set up objective methods of performance and carefully monitor compensation salary programs;
  3. Democratize Development: Make sure high potential women have the same access to training programs as their male counterparts;
  4. Provide Women with Mentors: There are great mentors available but some women need to be encouraged to develop formal mentoring relationships. Men will find mentors through lunches and outings that often exclude women;
  5. Internationalize Women’s Experiences: Women are often overlooked for key overseas assignments based on an assumption it won’t fit with their family obligations;
  6. Equalize (and Enhance) Transition Support: Every career transition is challenging and people require new training and coaching to make the transition work. However, women often don’t receive key coaching when needed.
  7. Make HR Policies More Family Friendly: Flexible hours and child care allowances and workable leave options can all help reduce barriers for women succeeding at work.

The study also outlines what women can do to help advance their own careers:

  1. Make Intentions Known: Because the study shows that managers often assume women are not or cannot take plum assignments, women should make sure they clearly communicate their career goals inside the organization,
  2. Consider Multinational Assignments: Having a family can often help a woman succeed as an expatriate because it gives her a ready-made support system.
  3. Counteract Behavior Stereotypes: Women need to recognize there is a double-edged sword when it comes to women’s behavior at work (act too assertively and you are the b***h; not assertively enough and you’re not meant to lead) and find ways to counter the stereotypes in a non-threatening way.
  4. Don’t Wait for Opportunities: Ask for assignments and opportunities. The men will.
  5. Stay Positive: Gender discrimination can damage a woman’s self esteem. However, if she can remain focused on her goals, the study says it will help her continue to move forward.

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