Gender equality at the C-level – how women can help themselves to a seat at the table
August 2018 | EXPERT BRIEFING | BOARDROOM INTELLIGENCE
There have been changes in attitudes toward women in the C-suite and increased opportunities for gender parity at the highest levels of organisations across industries in recent years. Not only has there been a spotlight on this issue in terms of fairness, but the data supports the presence of women in top positions as just plain good business.
According to Fortune Magazine, female-led companies perform three times better than the S&P 500. And a recent analysis of nearly 11,000 companies globally over the past eight years conducted by the largest bank in Scandinavia found that companies with a woman in the CEO or chairperson role more than doubled the performance of the MSCI World Index. As for board representation, the Women’s Leadership Foundation reports that Fortune 500 companies with sustained representation of three or more women on their boards have significantly greater financial performance than those with no women.
The numbers do not lie. It is indisputable that companies benefit greatly from gender diversity in leadership. The door to the C-suite is finally edging open wider for women, though perhaps more slowly than we all would like. All women have to do now is walk through that open door into their rightful place at the top of the executive suite, right?
In practice, it is not so simple. The evidence is clear that bias against female C-level candidates is the most formidable barrier to gender equality. The purpose of this article is not to address this injustice. The purpose is to highlight how female candidates may overcome some of the obstacles, and, most specifically, those which are unconsciously created by themselves. As search professionals working closely with candidates competing for those C-level positions, we have also, unfortunately, witnessed first-hand how often and in what ways women on the road to the top are the causes of their own undoing. They hold themselves back, they self-sabotage, and often they simply do not present as well as they could.
Whether by nature or nurture, men generally tend to possess more of a sense of entitlement than women. Men are also inclined to systematically overestimate their own abilities, whereas women frequently underestimate theirs. Men often raise their hands for roles they may not be entirely qualified for, whereas women feel they have to check every single box before they put themselves forward for a new position. Women would be well served to operate with a little more abandon in some of the ways that men do. To take more risks in their careers as opposed to playing it safe. Competing for roles that might be a little outside of their ‘wheelhouse’ is one such example.
Women are often rule followers; they tend to ask for permission, whereas men charge ahead and ask for forgiveness later. Women should not be afraid to be bold and pursue what they want. Gutsiness demonstrates leadership and is often rewarded, while following rules is not, particularly at the uppermost echelons of the corporate ladder.
Know your value and own it
Studies have shown that there are very real gender differences when it comes to interpersonal dynamics and, by extension, leadership styles. There is ample evidence that women both read and send non-verbal cues better than men. Women are naturally intuitive – everyone is familiar with the phrase ‘women’s intuition’. Men are often perceived, rightly or wrongly, as less sensitive and empathetic than women. Overall, women naturally have higher emotional intelligence (EQ) than men.
Those traits and skills that are traditionally associated with women – empathy, collaboration, empowerment, emotional intelligence and trusting their gut instincts – are very real assets, and companies are increasingly acknowledging their critical and tangible value in business. What might have been considered ‘feminine’ qualities and even weaknesses in the past are very clearly viewed as strengths in today’s models of transformational leadership, and women should own them and trumpet them. High EQ is critical to understanding both the internal organisation and the market, as well as communicating effectively with varying populations. Women should have no trepidation in assertively communicating their value, whether competing for a C-level role or in compensation negotiations.
Speaking of compensation negotiation, we would encourage women to be much more aggressive in negotiating, particularly now that laws prohibiting employers from asking candidates to reveal past compensation before making a salary offer are gaining momentum, aimed at reducing pay disparities for women and minorities.
Really understanding and owning their value can help with another self-defeating tendency some women have: they over-explain themselves – why they made a certain decision, what their thought process was – which makes them appear as if they are seeking another person’s permission or validation. Men typically walk into a room and know they belong there. They do not apologise or seek approval. Along the same lines, women tend to say ‘I am sorry’ much more frequently. Do not explain or apologise, as it can undermine you. Whether you believe it yet or not, act as if you deserve to be there and your viewpoint is valid and valuable.
Another subtle but common way in which many women undermine themselves is by asking questions instead of making statements. Their voice literally inflects upward at the end of sentences, so even if they intend to be making a statement, it comes across like a question. This subconsciously weakens their position, lessens their power and diminishes how they are perceived. It may sound like a minor technicality, but perception is 90 percent of reality. You may know your stuff, but if you do not talk like you do, you will not be nearly as effective, and you will not be perceived as a strong leader.
Another part of knowing your value is working smarter, not harder. In our observation, women tend to put in more hours than men. They stay longer in the office for appearances’ sake, to show they are willing to ‘go the extra mile’. This is not necessarily helpful to their work product or their career. They often end up making sacrifices, which in turn throws them off at home and in their personal lives. Simply logging more hours is not a good use of time and does not position you as an effective leader.
One very effective way for women to better own and communicate their value is to create a personal brand. Become an authority on a specific topic or area and you will see your stock rise. You may even already be an expert in a certain arena, but are not marketing yourself in that way. Ask yourself what you know better than most. Get yourself on panels, speak at events, network with like-minded experts, demonstrate thought leadership via articles and blogs, and make sure your social media presence consistently bolsters your brand.
We have noticed that women are often less willing than men to embrace ambiguity. When vying for new roles, women tend to seek a lot more definition. They want to know what the job will specifically look like in 12 to 18 months, for example. They are much more concerned with organisation and making sure they are not entering a chaotic situation. Men see chaos and ambiguity as an opportunity, while women see these as threats to be avoided. This goes back to risk-taking. Sometimes you need to take the leap forward even if all of your questions cannot be answered in this moment.
In the same vein, women are less inclined to relocate than men, often because they are not willing to take their children out of school. This means women often receive fewer opportunities. There is a correlation between willingness to relocate and furthering your career. It is all about priorities, but flexibility in this area can pay off in big ways.
Consciously create support for yourself
Make sure you surround yourself with women who will be your promoters rather than your competitors. Women can subtly, yet powerfully, undermine each other in a variety of ways. The ‘mean girl’ effect exists in adulthood, so gather women around you who will champion you and bolster your personal brand and avoid those who would chip away at your self-esteem and try to bring you down. Seek out female mentors and seek to mentor those who are coming up behind you. Many of the women currently at the top were mentored by men. It is up to the women nearing the top of the ladder now to reach back and share their wisdom and experience with the next generation of female leaders.
Take charge of your career
The habits and tendencies we have described are not universal. Not all women and men fall into each and every one of these behaviours. While these are generalisations, they are based on years of experience and observation. What you do not know and are not aware of can hurt you. Take an honest look at your inclinations and ask yourself if some of them may be unintentionally holding you back.
You can and must take charge of your own career. Know and lean into your strengths, especially ones you may have previously undervalued. ‘Fake it until you make it’, if you have to. By embracing a different perspective, you can change the course of your career for the better. The goal is for you to grab the brass ring, rather than wait until it is offered to you.
Bert Hensley is chairman and chief executive and Monica Bua is a senior client partner at Morgan Samuels. Mr Hensley can be contacted on +1 (310) 205 2208 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ms Bua can be contacted on +1 (310) 205 2262 or by email: email@example.com.
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Bert Hensley and Monica Bua