Embracing a push and pull approach to closing the gender leadership gap


Embracing a push and pull approach to closing the gender leadership gap

Whether you’re sitting around a lunchroom at work or staring at a screen full of your colleagues’ faces during a virtual meetup, there may come a day when you are struck by the men to women ratio. Depending on what that ratio looks like, a refreshing wave might wash over you. “I work for such a progressive organization,” you might chatter to yourself between sips of your cold brew. “Upper management has been doing such a great job at hiring diverse talent.” But then just as your straw runs dry and you hit the ice at the bottom of your glass a sinking feeling hits you. It’s more than just the realization that you’ve run out of caffeine. “Ah, except the majority of upper management is made up of men.” The revelation may be deflating, or maddening, or maybe it’s less of a revelation and more of an admission of something obvious you always saw but didn’t want to focus on, like a thread you avoided pulling for fear it would all unravel. 

Current research reveals a glaring gender gap in leadership positions within North America. 

Despite a record-high number of Fortune 500 Women CEOs in 2021, there are still more than ten times as many companies run by men than women in the United States, according to Global nonprofit Catalyst. In 2021, women in America were nearly half (47.0%) of the labor force, but only 40.9% of managers. 

As a Professor of Practice at Brown University and Academic Director of the IE Brown Executive MBA, Dr. Banu Ozkazanc-Pan, Ph.D. is a diversity, culture, and inclusion expert dedicated to researching the future of work. While the world has changed a lot since she decided to get her MBA from Loyola 20 years ago, she believes that there is still an incredible amount of work to be done regarding gender-based inequality. 

So why do women in business still lag substantially behind men in terms of their representation in leadership despite four decades of attention? 

Ozkazanc-Pan describes multiple reasons:

Individual: “Individual choices and behaviors that take women out of the running for consideration of leadership roles.”

Organizational: “Organizational culture and reward-system that values the contributions of men over women.”

Social: “Social norms and values that normalize men in leadership positions, creating a leaky pipeline of women who don’t see themselves in the top echelons of organizations, and therefore either opt-out of leadership contention or leave the organization altogether.”

How does Corporate America break the cycle?

“Organizations need to be intentional about attracting, retaining, and promoting women in ways that are tied to strategic goals, performance reviews, and even compensation of existing leadership teams,” says Ozkazanc-Pan. 

Catalyst COO Stacey Bain shares her advice on the power of sponsorship in a message she wrote to senior leaders. She explains that sponsoring women, particularly women of color, is critical to building trust, improving engagement and retention, and strengthening the leadership pipeline. 

“Passive acknowledgment perpetuates the struggle of those who are consistently hired ‘over’ by organizations who have spent significant resources in training them and then not allowed them to step into their supervisors’ roles,” says Bain. “It will cost their companies and the broader economy immeasurable value instead of creating value through advancement. Senior leaders, you must sponsor; it is a verb.”

Want to transition into a management position? Embrace the push and pull approach.

Citing research that indicates women often hold back from applying for positions when they do not have or feel like they do not have all the requisite experiences or credentials for positions, Ozkazanc-Pan emphasizes the importance for individual women to push beyond boundaries they set up for themselves. 

“Women need to apply for positions or express interest in being promoted even if they do not have all the experiences required or needed for management positions,” says Ozkazanc-Pan. 

While pursuing positions is on women, fixing the problem rests on the organizations that remain comfortable operating within a broken system. 

From a pull perspective, organizations need to understand that expectations and norms around promotions to management levels may be biased towards male candidates when the expectations of the positions are associated with successful males who have had those roles rather than the capabilities and experiences associated with success,” explains Ozkazanc-Pan. “In a way, it’s important for organizations to carry out a gender audit to understand where in the promotion-pipeline women are leaving and why they are leaving or not being promoted even if they apply for management level roles.”

The future of America’s workplaces has yet to be written. 

Recent years have brought a social shift in America’s mindset towards access and equity. At the same time, the pandemic upended the labor market, with disastrous consequences for working women and their families. Ozkazanc-Pan feels optimistic that by focusing both on individual women as well as organizational practices, businesses can take crucial steps toward trying to eradicate the gender inequities that lead to far too many talented women being overlooked for management roles or submitting their letter of resignation altogether. 

The truth is, gender bias is often unconscious – also known as implicit bias. A Harvard online research study of 200,000 participants found that 76 percent of them had implicit biases about gender. So the first step toward a more balanced and equitable future workplace is simply talking about the problems that exist and recognizing these biases for what they are. Only when we confront these realities in real-life conversations at work, can we start to fix them. It’s time to unravel that thread.

Photo by Filip Mroz

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