The Top 6 Reasons Women Are Not Leading In Corporate America As We Need Them To

By on February 13, 2013
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By Kathy Caprino –

Part of Kathy Caprino‘s new series on Women, Leadership, and Vision

As a trainer and leadership developer of women, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of HR and senior executive leaders the past 10 years, about women, growth, and paving the way for women’s ascension to leadership in corporate America. Yet what remains so disappointing and in fact, shocking, is that despite the irrefutable business case for the need to balance corporate leadership ranks with more women, we’re making very little headway – very little progress in the way of effective corporate change is occurring. Yes there are winners of Catalyst and other awards – and great, progressive organizations doing their part – but in the whole of corporate America, we’re not seeing the substantive change that’s necessary. Further, recent studies show that senior women are hit three times harder than their male counterparts in these tough economic times.

I believe there are 6 core reasons why women aren’t advancing to the leadership ranks to the degree we need them to in corporate America. One of the most important factors is that organizations are not digging deep enough to uncover EXACTLY why their organization isn’t fostering women leaders successfully. Leaders and HR directors attempt to address the issue every day, and they commit diversity dollars, initiatives, training programs and networking events to moving the needle, but rarely have the hard data, research and findings from men and women in the organization as to why women are leaving before they reach leadership levels, why they are plateauing or not being promoting effectively into leadership. Thus, their programs and initiatives don’t make a lasting difference.

Before I share what I believe are the 6 reasons why women aren’t leading in sufficient numbers, I’d like to ask HR staff and senior leaders this question:

Do you know (based on sound research and data and frank and open conversations at your company) EXACTLY why women are not sitting at your leadership tables in your organization? Do you have a handle on the specific part of the pipeline where you lose women, and why? If not, what step can you take this month to investigate as thoroughly as possible the barriers to women’s leadership success at your company?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, the very first thing you must do is begin a research and data gathering initiative – conduct a thorough, candid, and probing exploration of what isn’t happening that needs to be, and determine the barriers to women’s growth that are specific to your organization, culture, and enterprise.

To get you started in your thinking, below are the top 6 reasons I’ve found for why women aren’t leading as we need them to in corporate business, based on my 10 years of work in the field, my year-long research study, my book Breakdown, Breakthrough, my Career Success training programs and my leadership consulting.

The top six reasons why women aren’t leading in sufficient numbers are:

1) The differences between men and women are not fully understood or valued.

It’s an indisputable fact – women and men are different in many core ways, grounded in their neurobiology and their cultural training. (Read Dr. Louann Brizendine’s books The Female Brain and The Male Brain  for more info). So much of men and women’s behavior is programmed, hard-wired in our brains, and also culturally influenced. I’ve found, however, that in corporate America (which remains male-dominated at the leadership levels), the differences in women’s style, approach, communication, decision making, leadership values, focus and “energy,” are not at all understood or valued. Many organizations still make women “wrong” (consciously or subconsciously) for their priorities and styles that clash with the dominant culture. Further, the emphasis many women leaders place on connection, empathy, emotional cue-taking, consensus-building, risk-taking, mutuality, and questioning are often misconstrued as a “less-than” leadership style. More multicultural and diversity training must occur for women and men to wholly embrace their differences, and understand that it is diversity and difference that makes us stronger and more competitive.

2) Whole-self authenticity is a must-have for many women, yet impossible still in many corporate environments.

During a class I taught at New York University last summer on managing inclusion and cultural diversity, my students and I discussed the idea of bringing our whole hearts and spirits to our work and our careers – the idea that authenticity and transparency, and being who we really are – and being recognized and appreciated for that — is a vitally important criterion for our career success. A fascinating finding emerged – literally every woman in the class was in complete accord – that authenticity and being able to bring our whole selves to our work is essential to our fulfillment and success. (Check out Brené Brown’s great work on authenticity and vulnerability for more on that.)

But the males in the class vehemently disagreed. They shared their feelings that full transparency at work, and “exposing” all parts of themselves (personal and otherwise) was not at all desirable. They confirmed this with numerous male friends and colleagues, who all agreed that it’s not safe or accepted (or wanted) to be fully transparent and bring their whole selves to the workplace. I’ve seen this as a commonly held difference between men and women in the workplace, again impacted by cultural training and neurobiology. (Again, I am fully aware that many men do indeed bring their full, authentic selves to work.) But what’s vital to remember is that, for thousands of women, if they can’t be real, true, transparent, honest and authentic at work – and can’t be recognized, valued and appreciated for what they bring to the table — they won’t want to follow the leadership at the helm or do what it takes to succeed in their organizations or roles. If the political environment is so crushing, and the competitive terrain so negative that work feels like “theatre” and women have to pretend to be something they are not (which it did for me for numbers of years in my corporate life), then it’s not sustainable, and not worth it. Thousands of women are fleeing corporate America and starting their own businesses to escape what isn’t working for them, and also to create new models of business success and leadership that fit their style, preference, values and priorities.

3) Life, family and work priorities clash fiercely.

Women are still performing the majority of domestic and child care responsibility in the home, even when there are two spouses working full-time. As such, and as long as women are bearing the children in our species, women will not view child rearing and child care in the same way as men do, and will prioritize the responsibilities around it differently. The best article I’ve read recently on this dilemma – as a woman, the challenges around how to be the caregiver you want to be while being the contributive professional you long to be – is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. For me, every word resonated. Slaughter covered every key dimension represented of the challenges women face today in their quest to become business and political leaders while also balancing what they want to be as parents and care-givers, and what has to change in our work policies to allow these dual priorities to be met. If you’re outdated and closed-minded and believe that work-life balance or integration is a pipedream only for fools, then you’re contributing to the problem.

4) Extreme work demands can drum women out.

The extreme demands of many 24/7 work corporate environments today represent an impasse to many women who wish to prioritize life outside of work more highly. I’ve written before and believe this wholeheartedly – women are not less ambitious than men. It is the COST of ambition – and the struggle women face in pursuing their professional ambitions — that is at the heart of why we have so few women leaders today, and why women are achieving less and not reaching as high as men in corporate America. As Betsy Myers, President Clinton’s senior adviser on women’s issues shared with me recently, women tend to view their work as only one piece of the pie that represents their total life experience. If they’re forced to focus 24/7 on work for a majority of their professional lives, most women will choose not to pay that price.

5) Marginalizing of women is more common than we want to admit.

As much as we don’t want to admit it, women are still being diminished, sidelined, suppressed, and thought less of because of being women and because they are different from the leadership norm (here’s an example). Further, women are pushed aside regularly when they make their family priorities known or demand time off after having a child (and don’t kid yourself – this is a form discrimination to be sidelined for prioritizing time off for child bearing).

We can deny this all we want, but it is happening all across corporate America – women are still considered “less than” in terms of leadership capability in many organizations. This will change in 50 or 100 years, and is changing radically now in the entrepreneurial world (where I’m very excited to be supporting women’s leadership growth), but not fast enough in corporate America.

Kathy Caprino, M.A., is a nationally-recognized women’s work-life expert, career coach, marketing consultant, and author of Breakdown, Breakthrough: The Professional Woman’s Guide to Claiming a Life of Passion, Power, and Purpose.  Founder/President of Ellia Communications, Inc. — a career coaching and marketing consulting firm dedicated to helping women achieve breakthrough to greater success and fulfillment in life and work, Caprino is a former corporate marketing executive, trained psychotherapist, seasoned career coach, and sought-after writer and speaker on women’s issues.  She is a popular blogger on women’s career topics and trends, and as a top media source, she has appeared in more than 100 leading newspapers and magazines and on national radio and television.  Her current research study focuses on “My 52 Mistakes” – providing an open forum for women to explore the top “mistakes” they’ve made in their lives, and share the powerful lessons learned.  Kathy’s Breakthrough Marketing division provides top-level marketing support for women entrepreneurs, writers, consultants and practitioners.For more information on Ellia’s services, seminars and group coaching programs, visit http://www.elliacommunications.com/ or write to [email protected].  Follow Kathy on Twitter at @kathycaprino and on Facebook.

About Kathy Caprino

Kathy Caprino, M.A. is a nationally-recognized women’s career coach and work-life expert, executive trainer, Forbes contributor, writer and speaker dedicated to the advancement of women in business. Author of Breakdown, Breakthrough, and Founder of The Amazing Career Project, Kathy is President of Ellia Communications, Inc. -- a leading career and executive coaching and training firm helping professional women build successful and fulfilling careers of significance, and reach their highest potential. For more information, visit kathycaprino.com or write to [email protected] Connect with Kathy on: Twitter, FB, LinkedIn.

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The Top 6 Reasons Women Are Not Leading In Corporate America As We Need Them To