Female power players explore workforce issues that both help and hinder executive leadership.
By Mitchell Joseph
At the recent HRO Today Forum in Philadelphia, the Women in Leadership panel raised a number of important and pressing questions about the struggles of women to reach the boardroom.
The panelists agreed that there are factors relating to both women themselves as well as societal pressures that have hampered women’s advancement to board positions. While there were many references to the “implicit biases” that many hold in regards to women in the workplace, there was also an emphasis on what panelists called the female tendency to prepare incessantly. Women, they agreed, must have more confidence to take risks in the workplace, while men must be aware of the female propensity for caution and encourage them to bring out their many unique skills. “Women are inherently planners,” said Gilfeather. “Opportunity isn’t always well- defined, but it’s around us if we keep our eyes open for it and we need to leap without all the details.”
The panel was impressive: Diane Jorkasky, chief medical officer of Complexa Therapeutics; Rose Ann Scanlon, chair of Scanlon Louis; Martha Soehren, chief learning officer and senior vice president for talent management at Comcast; and Cindy Fiedelman, vice president of people and diversity at American Airlines. It was chaired by Beth Gilfeather, CEO of Seven Step Recruiting. Each woman shared her own experiences, but a number of common themes emerged from their personal anecdotes and thoughts.
Gilfeather opened the discussion with a question about the relative leadership styles of men and women as well as what strengths and weaknesses each bring to leadership roles. Jorkasky asserted that the gender of a leader was “irrelevant” to their success. However, she seemed to contradict that statement by saying, “The leader today who can get people to work together with different disciplines and different backgrounds and have them see a goal and work through those issues rather than a command and control mentality is the leader we’re going to see become successful in the future. I personally think that women do that better than men.” In spite of the apparent contradiction, it appears that Jorkasky meant leadership style, rather than success, varies with gender. Soehren had a slightly different take and said that women “have a lot that we can learn from the men as we continue to progress.”
The conversation then shifted to some of the barriers that women face in the workplace. According to Scanlon, there exist “some implicit biases that hold women back.” Gilfeather agreed that these predispositions exist, but noted that they are often not deliberate, but subconscious and ingrained from previous experiences, possibly dating all the way back to childhood.
These biases can be a barrier, agreed Fiedelman. However, she said, “Leadership, regardless of the statistics, is a choice.” Women must consciously make the decision to strive for those leadership roles and “lean in,” as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book says.
Sandberg’s book, noted Gilfeather, focuses more on the internal challenges for women in the workplace. “Women are inherently good at relationships but the men are better risk takers…The best leaders are those relationship-sensitive people that can take risks.”
Gilfeather also stressed what she saw as the female tendency
to strive for perfection. “A man will apply for a job that he is 65 percent qualified for,” she said. “A woman will apply for a job when she is 110 percent qualified for the job. Men just inherently jump in.” If women can begin to shake off their risk aversion they will find themselves with more opportunities, and the idea of leaning in espoused by Sandberg and others is a good way to start working toward this attitude.
The panelists agreed that not all women share this penchant for risk aversion, however. Jorkasky, the Complexa medical officer, claimed that throughout her career she often “just did it” in spite of societal norms about women in the workplace. One particularly humorous anecdote that she recounted involved her interview during the medical school application process, where she was asked, “Are you going to get pregnant?” Her response was simple. She asked the interviewer, “So are you going to have sex tonight with your wife?” The story drew laughs from the audience, but it also was an effective illustration that self- confidence can serve women well in their careers.
Building off of Jorkasky’s anecdote, Gilfeather moved on to
a question about risks each panelist had taken that helped to advance her career. Soehren detailed her decision to leave a
job with the federal government during a hiring freeze that prevented her from being promoted. With the support and encouragement of her boss, she found and took a position with a non-profit. “It was the lowest paid role that I had, but it was the best learning experience to help me move to the executive level that I am at today.” Following two years at the non-profit, she received a call from her old boss because the hiring freeze had been lifted and he was able to rehire Soehren to a position three levels above her previous job.
Gilfeather ran with this story, saying, “Opportunity doesn’t come in this beautiful gold box with a shiny red ribbon. Opportunity sometimes looks dirty and old.” She contended that women need to be more willing to “leap without all the details.”
The discussion then turned to mentorship, and specifically the panelists’ opinions on whether a mentor’s gender is relevant to their ability to serve as an effective teacher and guide. Soehren argued that the type of mentor, rather than their gender, is the most important aspect. She advocated the use of general mentors for those women at earlier stages in their careers, but targeted mentors focused on particular aspects or skills at later stages. Gilfeather agreed with the assessment that gender is often the least important attribute of a successful mentor. “I think it really doesn’t matter, in my opinion, if it’s a female or male, it’s really the quality of the mentoring,” she stated. However, mentoring can’t be a one-way street. As Jorkasky stated, “Mentoring should be an active engagement.” Women cannot sit back and hope a great mentor will fall into their laps, they must search out and locate the mentors they need.
Gilfeather next asked the panelists if it was possible for working women to “have it all.” While her inquiry was specific to women, Scanlon declared, “I think that neither men nor women can
have it all.” However, she went on to say that each person must decide what’s most important to them and make their career and personal decisions based on these priorities, a sentiment her fellow panelists resoundingly echoed. Gilfeather, the mother of twin girls, emphasized that, no matter what one’s priorities, the most important thing is to “be present,” whether at the office or at home.
The conversation wrapped up with a rapid fire segment in which each panelist offered one piece of advice about the how and why to install more women in executive positions:
Jorkasky urged companies to hire women for the right reasons. “Don’t just do it because it’s the legal thing to do,” she stressed, “Do it because it’s the right thing to do for your company.”
Scanlon returned to her earlier point about the ingrained preconceptions that hamper women. “Be conscious of those implicit biases,” she said, “As women we can lean in, but those implicit biases are a lot to overcome.”
Gilfeather finished the discussion by comparing women to “genie lamps” who, with a little rubbing and encouragement, will emerge to do great things. “Don’t assume that all these women are going to be proactive,” she encouraged, “A little bit of attention, a little bit of care, a little bit of thoughtful mentorship and you can really unlock some great drive and motivation.”
To close the panel, SharedXpertise CEO Elliot Clark cited statistics that, while women make up 51 percent of the world’s population and 54 percent of college graduates, only 15 percent of boardroom directors are female. Leaning in might be a solid start, but in order to achieve full equality, women might need to go a few steps further—and leap.