Diversity on the Executive Floor: Where Do Women Fit?

It takes a particular type of person to be a successful executive. While knowledge and skills play a crucial role in their success, would-be executives are dedicated, driven, and competitive. They know their worth, they learn from their mistakes, and they expect solutions and results.

Notice how none of these traits are gender specific.

Yet, as of 2016, only 4.2% of Fortune 500 companies were led by females. While the number of women in C-Suite offices is increasing as time passes, the pace has been glacial at best. The amount of women CEOs in the Fortune 500 increased what sounds like an incredible 50% from 2016 to 2017, the real numbers are depressing: from 21 female CEOs to 32. That’s not a percentage, that’s the total number of women.

That being said, gender doesn’t matter to most. In fact, 80% of people (both men and women) surveyed think men and women make equally effective leaders. So why aren’t there more women in executive roles? What opportunities do their diverse perspectives bring to the table? And how on earth do we get them to pull up a chair?

Here are some considerations for you to think about for your organization.


What Women Offer

We’ve already established that the traits that make a successful leader are not dependent on gender. However, that does not mean that men and women approach or portray their skills the same way.

One of the most notable differences between how men and women think are their problem-solving skills. While each individual is unique, women generally prefer to deeply consider problems, discuss them, and connect with others for perspective and insights. Men tend to internalize their problem-solving process, considering facts, and presenting a fully formed idea rather than asking for insight.

These differences add a challenging dynamic to communication between men and women, whether in business or relationships. On the other hand, the two groups may develop different solutions to a problem with different positive impacts.

Studies have shown that up to 31% of people believe female leaders may be more ethical and trustworthy than their male counterparts in roles. Furthermore, they think that having women in more executive positions would improve the quality of life of women at all levels. Alternatively, the same amount of people believe men are better at taking charge and assuming risk in leadership.

Whereas men tend to be more analytical and inquisitive, they also tend to be more impulsive when making decisions. Alternatively, women are more thoughtful and foster better interpersonal relationships. Women also tend to have less confidence in their role as a leader than men. Even so, businesses with women leaders at the helm also tend to have better financial success overall.

What does this tell us? Not that one group is better than the other, but that having the varying perspectives in an executive team would bring a diverse set of skills to a company’s leadership.


Barriers Preventing Women From Advancing

When discussing this issue, it is not uncommon to hear the term “glass ceiling” pertaining to the gender gap in leadership roles and pay. Researchers at Northwestern University present the idea that the term is archaic, and is in itself a barrier to advancement. Referring to the glass ceiling is, in their words, a way to categorize a problem without digging in and finding a solution.

Instead of the glass ceiling, these researchers refer to the leadership labyrinth:

“Rather than depicting just one absolute barrier at the penultimate stage of a distinguished career, a labyrinth conveys the complexity and variety of challenges that can appear along the way. Passage through a labyrinth requires persistence, awareness of one's progress, and a careful analysis of the puzzles that lie ahead.’

‘Routes to the center exist but are full of twists and turns, both expected and unexpected. Vestiges of prejudice against women, issues of leadership style and authenticity, and family responsibilities are just a few of the challenges.”

While we are arguably moving in the right direction, there is still a lot of leftover mindset from earlier societal traditions in our way.

Navigating the Labyrinth: How to Make a Change

One of the most forward-thinking ways to increase females in leadership roles is to introduce a mentoring program that pairs male leaders with female HiPos. Reciprocal mentoring partnerships in particular-- one in which the two participants coach each other-- are a way to eliminate unconscious bias and create visibility for female rising stars.

Present your employees and executives with coaching opportunities to help facilitate conversations between male and female talent, with perspective on different thought processes and values. Never underestimate the power of effective communication from the ground floor to the top office in an organization.

When it comes down to it, most organizations have gaps in their leadership, whether or not gender is a factor. It is essential to have that awkward conversation and point out weaknesses in an organization's hierarchy. Identify if your executive team is diverse enough to bring varying perspectives to problems. Determine who could use mentoring and coaching to become a more effective manager, because the skill is there but needs development. Most importantly, listen to your people because they are your greatest strength.

Do you need assistance facilitating difficult conversations, developing your leaders, and adding diversity to your executive team? Contact Bloom Leaders for more information.

Meredith Wailes is the President of Bloom Leadership, a cutting-edge platform for business growth with a focus on Whole Person Development. Meredith works with both men and women to break communication barriers and coach her clients to success, both at an executive and ground-floor level.  For more information visit Meredith on LinkedIn and Twitter.