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Q-and-A with Mary Davis Holt: The state of women in leadership

5 min read


I recently asked Mary Davis Holt about the book she co-authored, “Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power,” and some of the general themes regarding women and workplace advancement. Holt is a partner at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, whose goal is to move women and organizations forward faster. She is an executive coach and keynote speaker on business, women, and leadership.

How has the landscape changed in the past 10-20 years? Is it more difficult for women in some ways? Are women advocating for themselves and others more now or then?

It’s interesting. Some elements of the landscape have changed dramatically over the last few decades. For instance, women outnumber men today as a percentage of the total workforce. More importantly, women have surpassed men in earning advanced degrees. That’s great to see and it bodes well for women. Yet, there is a lot that has not changed. The percentage of women CEOs in the Fortune 500 continues to hover around 4 percent, for example. Even with Ginni Rometty running IBM, Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard, and Marissa Mayer leading Yahoo, the ratio of women at the top is just 20 in 500.

I don’t know if career success is any more or less difficult for women today compared to decades past, but I do know that many women still feel constrained by a double bind. Research has found that that women need to meet higher standards than men in order to lead — and yet they are paid 23% less on average [editor’s note: This is based on 2008 data]. This persists despite the fact that companies with more women leaders have a higher return on equity and stronger return on sales.

The book chronicles six key behaviors that negatively affect women professionally, particularly in reaching executive positions. Which of these was most surprising for you to discover as you researched and wrote this book?

What we’ve found in coaching women executives around the world is that career momentum is not about adding job skills but about changing everyday thinking and behaviors. One of the things that surprised us most as we researched the book was that so many women are unwilling to truly own their ambition. They are motivated to move into leadership positions, yet they are somewhat ambivalent about projecting power. Modesty and self-deprecation come more naturally. In fact, some women act apologetic in the face of success—almost as if they don’t deserve it. Women need to take credit for their ideas and accomplishments. Even in companies that strive to pull women up, women still have to push — by asking for what they want. Being more assertive and projecting confidence will help women move into the jobs they want more quickly.

The need for sponsorship — the going beyond mentorship to being an advocate — is noted for its important role in women becoming known to executives, taking on risks and having an advocate. Why might sponsorship be more important for women than for men?

We have found that women are far more likely to make their way into senior management jobs if they have been actively sponsored by a member of the organization’s executive committee. Yet, most women who are qualified to lead miss out on top positions because they don’t have the backing they need. In fact, only 20% of women have sponsors. In order to land more jobs at the highest levels of leadership, women must work to develop sponsors and advocates for their career. Women look around the boardroom and they see fewer female role models, and they see a path to power that is either blocked or poorly defined. Sponsorship can help pave the way.

Women do consistently help each other—through moral support and friendship. They network with each other extensively, and they offer career advice and mentorship. What they are somewhat less inclined to provide is formal sponsorship. Our research indicates that, even in the ranks of senior management, women align more often because they like each other personally, rather than with the specific intention of promoting the careers or interests of other highly qualified women.

In short, there’s more that women and men can do to actively ensure that their companies benefit by retaining and promoting their best, most talented women.

There’s ultimately an optimistic tone to this book — the idea of what women can and should do to help themselves and each other, rather than lamenting the situation. How important is it that readers also feel that optimism?

We are very optimistic, and we encourage women to have a high level of confidence in the future. There’s no one right way to succeed, but remaining positive can only help women sustain their momentum. The women we coach who are able to fuel their ambition remain upbeat and flexible. When we ask women what success looks like to them it runs the gamut, from becoming a CEO at a large organization to starting their own smaller business. If ambition leads one woman to Wall Street it may lead another to Silicon Valley.

To me, as well as my colleagues at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, the future is full of opportunities for women to lead. In fact, the optimistic goal we are working toward is to see at least 30% women leaders at the top levels of corporate America within the next ten years. We believe that 30% will be a tipping point. With 30% women leaders, the goals and direction of corporate America will change. The old rules will be shattered. America’s corporations will be better lead and everyone will benefit.