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How to place more women in leadership positions

What do women want and work, and how are they being sidetracked from leadership roles? A recent survey suggests ways HR, especially, can help

6 min read


How to place more women in leadership positions


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Employers are on a mission to get more women to the top. The proof is in millions of dollars spent on leadership training — and added support from myriad industries and women’s networking events designed to give women a leg up.

There’s no shortage of advice on how to get a seat at the table, negotiate a new title and raise, manage teams, find mentors and generally “lean in.”

But the recent survey “Women in 2020: Choosing to Move Up the Career Ladder—Or Not?” reveals that leadership “how to” puts the cart before the horse. This national survey of women ages 35-55 reveals that most are not aiming for top jobs. In fact, the majority of women in the age 35-44 age group — the critical pipeline for female leaders — say they’ve reached their career goals and don’t intend to advance further.

Although this data suggests complacency, survey data says otherwise. Women are not ambivalent about professional work: Despite COVID-19 challenges that created a quagmire of working and caring for children at the same time, 75% are still very committed to careers.

Most women in the workplace are content at their current level because higher titles are secondary to having more time to care for family and overall work-life balance. Asked hypothetically if they’d accept a two-year assignment with a bigger title and less time for family, survey respondents were neutral — only a 50% chance they’d jump at the opportunity.

Survey data sheds light on households that appear stuck in eras when women only had responsibilities at home. Working women shoulder primary responsibility for as many as four big jobs — professional roles, managing households (71% of responsibility), and caring for children (67%) and aging parents/in-laws (71%).

The survey challenges the perception that today’s young men pitch in much more than their fathers did. The youngest women surveyed (ages 35-44) includes the tail end of millennials (now ages 23-39) and data suggests no significant difference in support provided by younger or older male partners.

Though women are stretched thin, they put on a good face. Employers think “no news is good news” because, in the office, women silence their work-life concerns and appear to be fully on board with leadership training. A dramatic survey finding is that most women would be more apt to say they weren’t given opportunities to advance than admit they really didn’t want the added responsibility.

The survey clearly points out that work-life support — not leadership training — would give more women leaders the bandwidth to consider moving up the career ladder. Women say they need employers to be proactive in providing resources and “safe spaces” for work-life problem-solving and shared best practices. The demand is amplified by the COVID-19 crisis, piling on to already deficient employer support:

  • Women who have figured out how to take on positions of power aren’t sharing secrets for success. Only 57% of those surveyed describe women in power as helpful, and 42% describe them as compassionate. 64% resent that women in power aren’t doing what would really help other women rise.
  • Employers don’t have enough training to help women blend work and life. Only 20% of women surveyed say their companies offer leadership training resources focused specifically on easing the work-plus-life struggle. 
  • Employers provide limited opportunities to encourage women to help other women. Only 15% of those surveyed have an internal women’s networking group, and only 6% have a parenting group. 

There are promising signs, however, that employers will now step up and give women the resources they need. At the waste management leader Stericycle, Edith Yambo, the company’s global director of talent management, culture and employee engagement, says:

“One pivot to specifically support women is the launch of our employee resource group, Women’s Resource for Impact, Success, and Empowerment (WRISE). The group helps women navigate the impact of COVID-19 on both their personal and professional lives — focusing on mental health, well-being and work-life balance. We know women need support beyond the professional realm and WRISE helps to ease life responsibility overload and increase on-the-job engagement.”

Another sign of progress is at Macmillan Publishers, where, for a long time, employees have been able to apply for a work-at-home arrangement one day a week. But when COVID-19 hit, the company knew it had to offer even more.

Macmillan rolled out a flexible-work initiative with several new temporary options:

  1. A split work day (e.g., working 7 to 11 a.m., off until 3 p.m. and then working another three or four hours)
  2. Split work week (substituting a weekend day for a weekday)
  3. Split work hours (e.g., working four days at nine hours/day and a four-hour day on the fifth day)
  4. Use of vacation and discretionary days to create a shorter workweek
  5. Reduced work hours, with a reduction in salary.

HR surveys employees regularly to make sure they’ve discussed options with their manager and have the information they need to make positive work-plus-life changes.

“Just because women are now working at home full-time doesn’t mean they have all the flexibility they need to be fully productive current and future employees,” says Helaine Ohl, vice president and global director of HR. ” With our new options, we’re creating more space for women to stay on track with their professional growth — and providing a stronger foundation to take on greater responsibility,”

Not all employers have the means to support HR initiatives on this scale, but Felicia Rubinstein, founder of the women’s shared workspace Hayvn in Darien, Conn., provides easy and affordable alternatives.

“Since COVID,” Rubinstein says, “we’ve had a big uptick in inquiries from small to mid-size employers who know that working at home is not always productive, especially until school schedules return to normal. Employers want to give mothers, especially, a break from long commutes, and shared workspaces close to home give women a productivity boost.”

Employers of all sizes are increasing work-plus-life resources because, historically, they know that reducing worry about nonwork issues (through, for example, the many corporate-sponsored financial management and health/wellness programs) means greater work quality and commitment.

The Women in 2020 survey points out that encouraging discussion on all the work-life demands that distract and overwhelm high-potential employees are the necessary first step and foundation to get more women to buy into and set their sights for the top.

Kathryn Sollmann is a career coach and author of “Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman & What to Do Instead.” Her recent survey “Women in 2020: Choosing to Move Up the Career Ladder—Or Not?” was conducted in collaboration with global research firm Decision Analyst. The executive summary can be accessed here.

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