Professional women are more confident than ever before — and taking a more positive mindset in their approach to their careers.
But challenges and barriers toward advancing women in senior leadership still exist, and organizations need to be proactive in creating a culture of gender intelligence.
Those were among the key findings of a study documenting the experiences of executive women across North America. On behalf of Women of Influence and Thomson Reuters, Barbara Annis & Associates conducted an in-depth survey of 326 women in senior leadership positions. The results were the basis for the whitepaper Solutions to Women’s Advancement.
An important aspect of the study is that it provides workable solutions to help organizations develop female leaders, said Carolyn Lawrence, president and CEO of Women of Influence in Toronto.
“We did the study with the express purpose of providing solutions that are immediate and are pointed directly at the women but also the corporations that hire women,” she said.
Confidence, leadership style
Despite the challenges of reaching high-level career success, the women in the study had a very positive mindset, said Lawrence.
“None of the women in this group (see themselves as) victims. That was something that I was not expecting,” she said.
This positivity was common among the respondents — and it was one of the most interesting findings, said Patsy Doerr, global head of diversity and inclusion and corporate responsibility at Thomson Reuters in New York.
“None of them had what we would call that ‘victim mentality’ — (that sense) that they had survived a battle of sorts. They went through their careers assuming that they could achieve what they wanted, and assuming that with great confidence. And they have been very successful in doing that,” she said.
The women in the survey also demonstrated a high degree of confidence and an authentic leadership style — 84 per cent no longer feel they need to act like men in order to succeed.
That finding was a pleasant surprise, said Barbara Annis, founder and CEO of Barbara Annis & Associates in New York.
“Women really feel that they can bring their authentic selves, their authentic leadership — they don’t have to take on male behaviour in leadership, which often we find,” she said.
“What this research shows is that there’s a huge shift there, so that was really great to see.”
The women in the study also negate the idea that women are “opting out” of these corporate leadership roles, said Lawrence.
“We’ve all read the other studies — everyone keeps saying there’s still a large percentage of women opting out of the corporate world for work-life balance reasons,” she said.
“What our study showed was that these women had not considered it themselves, opting out for work-life balance. While they did say it was a challenge, they didn’t think it was a barrier. So the difference is in the attitude and the ability to look at this with a positive mindset.’”
Self-promotion still a struggle
The study examined five different categories or themes of career success, including big picture, leadership responsibility, leadership maturity, self-initiation and career advancement. The area where women tended to have difficulty was around self-promotion and career advancement, said Lawrence.
“They have confidence and that leadership mentality and big-picture responsibility, but we saw those other two areas of self-initiation and career advancement being a little bit lower on the scale. So (there’s) some room for improvement,” she said.
Women already tend to be strong at relationship-building but they don’t always do so with strategic purposes in mind, said Lawrence.
“Where men are strong is in building strategic connections. And so there’s this difference that, both are great and both are good, and we like elements of both, but in business the strategic one is the one that will help you get ahead.”
Many women also struggle when it comes time to market their work, said Doerr.
“There’s a tendency to keep your head down and assume that, by doing good work, you’ll be recognized.”
There’s also an impact when it comes to negotiating, said Annis.
“Women are outstanding negotiators when they negotiate for others. But then when we ask them about negotiating for themselves, they score themselves lower,” she said.
“So, for me, it’s not a matter that women don’t have the tools to negotiate — it’s not like we have to put them through a whole bunch of training around negotiation. They can already do it for others, so it’s just really applying it in the context of themselves.”
The study makes a number of different recommendations around how organizations can advance women — but the key idea is around gender-intelligent leadership, said Lawrence.
“You have to be gender-intelligent, and that’s just the simple bottom line. Companies are not going to get this if they just dip their toe in,” she said.
“A lot of the corporations we see, they read the business case for women’s advancement, they hear the social issues… And they dip their toe in by creating small programs or committees within an organization.
“The unfortunate part about that is these are the least effective programs to create change. When you’re creating culture, you can’t sort of, maybe, create change culture — you have to create new culture. And that only comes from the top.”
The intent behind this study was to change the conversation around gender-intelligent leadership, said Lawrence.
“This would break through the small initiatives that aren’t creating change. This would break through the numbers being stagnant for women’s advancement for the last five years.”
Gender intelligence means an understanding and appreciation of the differences that distinguish men and women, including attitudinal and behavioural differences, said Annis.
And appreciating those differences means seeking out diversity, instead of promoting in your own image.
“If you’re looking at focusing on numbers in advancing women into senior ranks, you want to think about how you are managing your time, and are you being gender-intelligent in how you do that in the sense that, is it still based on sameness?” she said.
“Are you still advancing people in your own image — a younger version of you — or are you looking at the fact that to really be an innovative organization, you want the diversity?
“We know for a fact that women are highly educated, highly capable… we know that the education side of it, we’ve accomplished. Now it’s the advancement side of it that we need to look at. And it’s not just a numbers game — you’ve got to look at it systemically. You’ve got to look at how you are approaching your processes and also your leadership mindset.”
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