Every year, a new class of college graduates is released into the world to seek employment and begin building professional careers. Most will work in corporate offices, production facilities, labs, schools, from home, or in the field. Some will become leaders.What’s different now—compared to 20 years ago—is that women comprise the majority of graduates. That is to say, the pool of potential candidates for future leadership positions includes more women than men. Yet women continue to represent only a small fraction of senior leaders in corporate America. Not only are some talented female employees being overlooked for executive and other senior-level roles based solely on their gender, but companies are also hurting themselves by failing to develop that talent. Both the organization and female potential leader lose out when she feels compelled to seek her fortunes elsewhere.
There are numerous factors involved in the dearth of women leaders across the business world, “second-generation bias” is becoming more prevalent—future women leaders need to begin to combat it.
In the past, women faced “first-generation bias” in the workforce, which was characterized by rules that openly prevented women from having opportunities or taking on responsibilities that were available to men. After all, women weren’t even allowed to vote until 96 years ago. Fortunately, modern laws prevent direct discrimination based on gender, and when it does happen, women have legal recourse.
However, women may still face second-generation bias, which is the result of a business practice or organizational culture appearing to be unbiased or gender-neutral on the surface while implicitly discriminating against women. Oftentimes, these practices are developed or designed by executives who are unaware of the ingrained sexism that can influence actions and decisions. Second-generation bias is often unintentional and may not even be recognized until an attempt is made to uncover it. Because such bias often goes unchecked, today’s literature on gender dynamics in the workplace frequently cites it as an explanation of why it is taking so long to break the glass ceiling; why there is still such low representation of women in senior-leadership roles; and why pay disparity still exists, among other issues.
Organizational development consultants often witness second-generation bias firsthand. Many organizations with diversity issues end up focused on “checking boxes” instead of developing the best, strongest, and most dynamic team. In other words, they are simply being labor-compliant by not discouraging women from applying for jobs or excluding qualified female candidates from consideration. This approach, while logical, doesn’t eliminate gender representation problems. Women also need more access to jobs and more opportunities to take the lead and be change agents.
Women may be perceived negatively for showing the very attributes admired in male leaders, such as assertiveness, confidence, and persistence, which perhaps, causes them to be judged as difficult or harsh. But research disagrees. A recent research study from Caliper on top-performing women leaders looked at the personality dynamics most consistent with success across different industries. The study found that the personality traits most closely associated with successful male leaders are the same for female leaders: a straightforward communications style; an orientation toward taking decisive action and risks; and proficiency in solving complex problems.
Successful women leaders in the study showed a preference and potential for transformational leadership—the approach considered most effective in today’s complex business environment. In contrast with transactional leadership, transformational leadership inspires employees and encourages them to rely upon their internal motivations to perform. The managers who use it can increase employee engagement by connecting with team members, encouraging them, supporting their development, and explaining how each employee’s efforts connect to the organization’s strategies and goals.
The challenge becomes changing organizational cultures so that second-generation bias is eliminated, and, based on the experiences of HR professionals, a lot of companies need to change their cultures. Alas, such a paradigm shift won’t happen on its own. So, how can aspiring women leaders drive the change instead of waiting for it to happen?
More than anything, women need to assume responsibility for their career trajectories by setting clear goals and priorities, identifying potential barriers before they are encountered, and consistently developing strategies and skills. It may take time to reverse well-entrenched biases toward women leaders, but women don’t have to accept the status quo and simply avoid the difficult conversations that need to take place if they are to progress their careers. What are some approaches that can help?
• Actively defining a personal brand. This is a key to shaping perceptions about one’s capabilities, potential, and value. Ultimately, women have to visualize how they want to be perceived by colleagues then hone their skills to turn their vision into a reality.
• Illustrating leadership qualities. Women can start by making integrity the hub of their brand. From there, they can work on defining intended communication and decision-making styles, as well as a professional presence. Decision-makers have their own vision about what success looks like; an employee’s job is to exude it by marketing themselves as a capable, credible resource—with their own distinctive style.
• Mentoring future leaders. Those who pave the way for others are usually eager to help, and in some cases, to act as mentors (either inside or outside of their organization). Their insights and experiences can help women cultivate their brand and avoid landmines, some of which may not have been considered. Don’t forget: men can also be impactful mentors. Don’t exclude them from the list of possible mentors.
• Growing a network of leaders. Go a step further and create a women’s network of like-minded professionals who can share stories, ideas, and strategies. Upward mobility becomes more tangible when women act as their own advocates.
The realization that women have agency is a powerful one, but sometimes their instinct is to spend time focusing on what they lack rather than on what they possess. Studies show that businesses with women in senior positions and on their boards usually perform better financially than companies run exclusively by men.
How can female professionals change that story? Perhaps by understanding that they may be precisely what their organization needs.
Cyndi Sax is the senior vice president of consulting services with Caliper.
Getting to the Top
How can women make their way into leadership roles? Women need to place a strong focus on setting career trajectories by:
• setting clear goals and priorities;
• identifying potential barriers before they are encountered; and
• developing strategies and skills.
It may take time to reverse well-entrenched biases toward women leaders, but women don’t have to accept the status quo and simply avoid the difficult conversations that need to take place if they are to progress their careers.