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Women’s leadership: Get past the pushback

Many clients and prospects I talk to tell me that they are already addressing gender diversity in their organizations. When I ask them how, they tell me about the one-day workshop they had for their female talent where they brought in an impressive speaker or the women’s leadership ERG that formed.

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One and done, surface level programs aren’t going to fix gender diversity issues. Unless we start getting to the root of the issue, start fixing the systems (vs. the women), start getting leadership commitment, and start making a commitment to holistic programs that span a meaningful length of time, nothing is going to change.

Here are four reasons we get pushback around women’s leadership—and why we need to get past those objections.

Pushback: It’s not fair to men
Just because we start to get some pushback from people who can’t attend women-only programs, doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bath water. Some programs we provide for employees may not be popular with everyone. That doesn’t mean they aren’t important to champion.

Everyone is afraid of exclusion these days. Most of that concern is driven out of fear of litigation. Exclusion doesn’t have to be a negative. Exclusion can make an experience more meaningful and transformative vs. watering it down for the masses.

Pushback: One program meets everyone’s needs

Women have unique workplace challenges compared to male coworkers. For a lot of women, transformational leadership development work is emotional. And for many of them, being able to express that emotion without the judgement of their male colleagues is liberating.

Many women throughout my career have given me advice to “be more like a man about it.” When women are trained throughout their careers to “hold it together,” “act more like men,” and “leave emotion out of it,” they are reluctant to share these kinds of things with male peers in the room.

Women in all my workshops tell me that they don’t know who they are any more. They don’t know what makes them happy. These are vulnerable, emotional things to admit.

Guilt is a topic that much more predominantly comes up with our female clients. Confidence as well. These are topics that women can talk about in small group discussions in deep, meaningful ways. Introspection and self-awareness are critical in any leadership journey, and women need a safe place to do that work.

Pushback: Women won’t help other women
Women need to be taught and encouraged to support one another. Mean girl syndrome exists in many of the organizations I see today. One partner even told me that it is her goal to make someone at work cry every day.

Instead of supporting one another, many women I talk to are petty about their colleagues’ success, looks, commitment, you name it. Perhaps that’s why studies from the likes of Pew, Gallup, and UCLA repeatedly show that women would rather work for men.

Some will suggest that women are inherently catty. But Robin Ely, a Harvard business professor, suggests it’s a matter of resources and situation. When so few women get places at the top, women see their own gender as a barrier to success. They turn naturally competitive, rather than cooperative.

Going through a leadership program—and having that shared experience together—helps women support each other in ways that otherwise don’t naturally happen.  The power of that support trickles down through the organization and helps create a culture of shared success rather than competition. 

Pushback: I don’t need that
Some of the young women we work with don’t understand why they are chosen for women’s leadership programs. They are almost offended by being singled out.

They don’t see the ceiling above them or realize there’s a problem. Perhaps they don’t want to identify as a marginalized group, believing they are stronger or more capable of succeeding than their other female counterparts. Yet, as women get higher up in the organization, they become frustrated by the barriers and lack of support and realize there is, in fact, a problem.

We need these women to get vocal about the barriers they experience, sooner rather than later. We need them to hold up a mirror to their organizations and help their employers take corrective actions. Women’s leadership programs help make that happen.

100 Years is Far Too Long

The problem starts early. Women are less likely than men to be promoted to management positions. It begins with entry-level promotions to manager and gets progressively worse up through the talent pipeline. McKinsey leaders put it like this:

“That collective stumble on the first step up the corporate ladder suggests that over the next five years, one million women in corporate America will get stuck at the entry level while their male counterparts move into promising career paths. That is equivalent to 14 NFL stadiums full of women.” (WSJ)

McKinsey researchers estimate it will take 100 years to reach gender parity in the workplace. That means 15 to 20 years from now, my eight-year-old girls are going to need a women’s leadership program. They won’t see leadership equality in their working years.

Businesses haven’t taken this long to address any other factor that impacts innovation or performance. And yet, we know it’s the proven, measurable way to increase corporate results.  It’s time we get past the pushback and activate change.

Read the full position paper at Talking Talent.

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