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Promoting Women to Executive Leadership Positions

What Are We Doing Wrong?

 

With women representing more than 50% of the world’s population and a rapidly growing percentage of the most highly educated portion of the world’s employable talent, many companies are interested in building diverse and diversity-capable leadership teams. Companies are increasingly aware that creating a work environment where women leaders can advance, contribute and succeed is a vital competitive business advantage.

 

Companies are increasingly aware that creating a work environment where women leaders can advance, contribute and succeed is a vital competitive business advantage.

 

Nonetheless, despite often well-intentioned initiatives for women and their careers, many companies still fall short of their goals to promote and retain women in leadership positions and struggle to understand why. The answer to this question is as varied as both the many women who are offered these opportunities and the environments in which such an offer is made.

 

Despite the complexities, and the lack of quick-fix answers, there is value in raising awareness around some of the more common issues that we see plaguing the advancement of talented women. In this spirit, it is necessary to think about, ponder and explore these issues in the context of a company’s specific working environment.

 

Treat Women as Individuals

First of all, it is important to treat promotable female executives as individuals. We will start with an issue that should be readily apparent but often is not (even to women themselves). Women represent more than 50% of the world’s population. They are not a minority and they are as diverse as people can be. As a result, their reasons for accepting or rejecting a promotional opportunity must always be negotiated and assessed individually.

 

This does not mean that women will not have some shared experiences, especially as it relates to their treatment within a given working environment. Such experiences, however, will not be because they are a homogenous group, but because the work environment may treat them as if they are. As such, if a company is having problems promoting women, it may be necessary to take a hard look at the environment those women are working in. The common threads preventing success are more likely to be in the work culture and environment than in the women themselves.

 

 

Moreover, professional women’s issues are not always synonymous with working parent or caregiver issues. Twenty percent of professional women will not be a parent or caregiver. However, if the woman that is being promoted is a parent or caregiver, working moms do share many issues and challenges that need to be considered. But these issues are also quite relevant for all parents. In fact, these issues will be increasingly important to the younger generation of workers, both male and female, as parenting preferences and traditional gender roles continue to change.

 

Flexible Terms

Secondly, signal a willingness to design terms, conditions and benefits for success. Within the context of any executive promotion negotiation, the terms and conditions should be designed to enable the candidate to succeed in the role. A standard package that has been designed for a traditional candidate may or may not be relevantly configured for a female candidate. For example, for a woman who is a working parent and whose spouse is also a working professional, covering (and paying for) caregiving and balancing or reducing travel requirements may be significant threshold issues to address before the candidate will commit to the demands of a new role.

 

Accordingly, to prevent women from just turning down positions as a result of these non-traditional considerations, it is important for companies to signal their willingness and commitment to have discussions about these considerations in good faith and without future adverse impact. This can be communicated in a variety of ways. For example, at the time the promotion offer is made, it is possible to communicate this openness to further discussions by asking the candidate what she would need to be successful in the role and expressing a willingness to address and explore individual needs that may require adjustments.

 

It is also possible to word a job description in such a way that invites alternative discussion on terms and conditions.

 

It is also possible to word a job description in such a way that invites alternative discussion on terms and conditions. For example, instead of saying “50% travel required,” the description can be worded to read: “Extensive travel may be required, but terms of travel to meet global demands can be explored further.” Women are much less likely to self-disqualify if terms invite such openness to discussion. When invited to do so, we have seen female candidates have excellent alternative ideas regarding how to manage such requirements effectively.

 

Finally, when negotiating terms, women should not be unfairly burdened with the fear that they are creating a precedent for all women, unless such precedent considerations would also have been applicable to negotiations with male candidates.

 

Give Them Time

Thirdly, give female candidates more time and support to consider a promotion offer. If a woman is being offered a promotion into an executive team that is (and has been) male dominated and quite traditional, the task before her is daunting. She is not just considering accepting a new job with greater responsibilities, which on its own is a big decision. She is also often assessing her ability to be successful doing so in an environment that is not designed for her, where there is little or no social support, and where there are often unfairly high performance expectations.

 

 

For female candidates, constantly proving themselves in their work environment is an exhausting undertaking that also can also be quite lonely. The same is true for any candidate that finds themselves in a minority situation within an executive team.

 

Women may also have non-traditional personal and family obligations to consider. For many, work and family life may currently be in a perfect, but quite fragile, balance with many ‘moving parts’ to consider. In such a circumstance, many women’s first instincts are to refuse a promotion, especially if their perception of the new role is a misguided assumption that it will be more work being piled on them.

 

The reality is that executive promotions for women can often move them into a role where they will have much more control over how they work. It is often the role just before such an executive promotion that is the worst in terms of workload and lack of control. This aspect of the promotion may not be fully appreciated or explored by female candidates due to a lack of understanding of this potential shift.

 

Women considering promotions often need a safe place to voice their concerns, explore their needs and express their insecurities without undermining their executive voice and closely guarded credibility.

 

In such circumstances, it can be extremely helpful to use the services of a third-party consultant during deliberations and negotiations. Women considering promotions often need a safe place to voice their concerns, explore their needs and express their insecurities without undermining their executive voice and closely guarded credibility.

 

With these considerations in mind, moving towards a diverse and diversity-capable leadership team becomes truly possible.

 

By Rosalie Harrison, Partner, Borderless