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Despite the fact that in many fields women outpace men in acquiring education, the lineup at the top of most industries is still male. The number of well-educated, qualified women in entry-level positions is robust, yet a great disparity exists when it comes to the number of women in corporate leadership. Top circles of leadership remain dominated by men — women make up just 23 percent of S&P 500 executive committees. Only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, with women holding just 19 percent of board seats.

As a business school, we are called upon to equip the future leaders of industry, and as such, we work to address the reasons why women are not reaching the top of their professions. In building solutions to address this leadership gap, we often see two camps: fix the women or fix the system.

An inclusive strategy is more helpful than an either/or approach for tapping the full potential of women. Both internal and external forces keep women from advancing in their careers. Overemphasizing one without a clear understanding of the other will not address women’s slow progress to the top.

Each week, I meet with our women MBAs (and a number of men) as part of ongoing leadership coaching. Themes emerging from these conversations inform ways to change the shape of women’s leadership funnels within organizations.

 

1. Leadership development is identity development.

How we become leaders and how we take up our roles as leaders is fundamentally a process of identity development. In other words, the quest for leadership is primarily an inner quest to discover who we are, what we can be and what we offer as leaders. Our gender plays a dynamic role in how we understand our identity, and therefore has a great impact on how we come to understand ourselves as leaders. Just as we are comfortable studying the impact of our personality, character traits or behavior through traditional developmental tools like an MBTI or DISC profile, it is critical that we seek to understand how gender impacts our leadership roles in different organizational and cultural settings.

 

2. Professional identity is meant to evolve.

Whereas productivity is the key word for one’s early career (work hard and deliver as instructed), this is not necessarily the key to success during the achievement phase of one’s career. It is important to note that career progression gradually becomes more about driving strategic results by effectively managing others and building networks of influence, and less about individual performance. This is a critical inflection point when aspiring leaders must change their perspective on what is important and, accordingly, how they spend their time. In doing so, they make the shift from expert to achiever.

The need for aspiring leaders to make this transition is gender neutral; however, there are gender-specific obstacles to be aware of and address. Women receive feedback less frequently than men and have less access to senior leaders, sponsors and stakeholders — the very networks that are vital for success at this stage of their career. Given this, the rules of the game may not be explicit, and many women may not recognize that they are in the stage of their career when success is determined more by the robustness and reach of their networks of influence than by mere productivity.

 

3.  Gender stereotypes haven’t died off yet.

For women moving toward senior leadership positions, the behavior and comportment seen as firm, decisive and fully engaged in men is often experienced as aggressive, overbearing or too emotional in women. This is termed a double bind — conflicting messages that negate each other based on the underlying perception that women do not fit the image of an ideal leader. This unfortunate mentality is still pervasive in business and makes defining the skillsets and behaviors underpinning executive presence all the more murky. This also affects how women are discussed and viewed when it comes to performance, promotions and pay issues, as well as how their behavior is seen and interpreted.

By exploring the obstacles confronted by female leaders, we can all help women navigate organizational and personal obstacles (many of which they do not recognize) in order to shape the rules of engagement, with the hope of sustaining capacity for and interest in greater leadership opportunities.


by Leanne Meyer, director of leadership development, Tepper School of Business