The Myth Of The C-Suite, Part 2

The Myth Of The C-Suite, Part 2

Part 2 of a 2-part series, today’s blog post reviews the myth of the glass ceiling and what actually prevents women from making it into the C-suite, and what can be done to overcome some of these obstacles.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this 2 part series on the myth of the C-Suite, despite years of progress by women in the workforce – they now occupy more than 40% of all managerial positions in the U. S. – within the C-suite they are by far more scarce. When you look at Fortune 500 companies, the most highly paid executives with titles such as chairman, chief executive officer, president and COO, only 6% are women. More importantly, only 2% of the CEOs are women, and only 15% of the seats on the boards of directors are held by women.

While it’s a catchy phrase, “glass ceiling” is not really the reason why women don’t make it into the C-suite. The real reason is due to the sum of many obstacles that appear along the trajectory of a women’s career. While there was a time when the barriers were absolute, times have changed and the glass ceiling metaphor rings less true. We have female CEOs, university presidents, governors, etc. In addition, the metaphor implies that women and men have equal access to entry and mid-level positions, when in point of fact they don’t. The glass ceiling doesn’t incorporate the complexity and variety of challenges women can face in their leadership journey.

The truth is that women aren’t turned away just as they reach the pinnacle of their career. They disappear in numerous ways leading up to that stage. The path to the C-suite is not a simple or direct path, but one that requires persistence, awareness of progress and careful analysis of the obstacles that lie ahead. For women who aspire to top leadership positions the routes exist, but like a labyrinth they are full of twists and turns – some that are expected and others that come out of left field.

In Part 1, a number of different barriers that make up this labyrinth were identified: remnants of prejudice, resistance to women’s leadership, leadership style, family life demands, and building professional relationships through networking. Only a small number of women have made the right combination of moves to arrive at the center of power, but for the rest there is no single turning point where their progress was diverted and the “prize” was lost.

So, what do we do in the face of such a multifaceted problem? One solution that has been proposed often is for governments to implement and enforce antidiscrimination legislation requiring organizations to eliminate inequitable practices, but in analyzing the cases that have gone to court, it’s been shown that legal remedies can prove elusive when gender inequity is a result of norms embedded in the structure and culture of an organization.

If a company truly wants to have more women arrive in its executive suite, it needs to incorporate the following:

Increase Awareness

One beneficial solution is to increase awareness of the psychological drivers of prejudice toward women workers and work to dispel these perceptions. Raising awareness of ingrained bias has been the goal of many diversity-training initiatives. If their lessons aren’t underscored by what managers do and say in the course of day-to-day work, however, there is a real danger that they will be undermined and rendered less effective.

Change the norm of long-term hours

In the context of work especially, it can be difficult to assess an individual’s’ true contributions, and managers often resort to looking at hours spent at work as the prime indicator of someone’s worth to the company. Women with family demands that interfere with their time, but who have highly productive work habits will receive the encouragement and rewards they deserve if a company can successfully shift the focus to objective measures of productivity. 

Avoid Tokenism: Increase the number of women in executive positions

To head off the difficulties that often come with having just one or two women in executive positions within a company, it’s important to ensure a critical mass of women in these positions to avoid tokenism. Pigeonholing women into narrow stereotypical roles limits their options and makes it difficult for them to ascend to positions of responsibility. When women are not a small minority, their identities as women become less a factor, and colleagues are more likely to react to them in terms of their individual competencies.

Shore Up Social Capital

The pull of family responsibilities is one of the primary reasons for women’s underinvestment in networking. Social activity is usually the first thing to go when time is scarce. Companies can help women appreciate the importance of networking, and the benefits that come from strong and supportive mentoring relationships and powerful network connections. When a well-placed individual in a leadership role (often a man) takes an interest in a woman’s career, she is able to build social capital far more efficiently.

Establish family-friendly HR practices

Flextime, telecommuting, job sharing, dependent child care options, employee-sponsored on-site child care, and elder care provisions are some of the ways organizations can enable women to stay in their jobs during the most demanding years of child rearing. This support also allows them to build social capital, keep up to date in their particular fields, and eventually compete for higher positions. A study of 72 large U. S. firms showed that family-friendly HR practices in place in 2004 increased the proportion of women in senior management over the next five years.

Encourage male participation in family-friendly benefits

Any effort toward greater family friendliness by an organization needs to actively include male participation in order to avoid inadvertently making it more difficult for women to gain access to managerial roles. Dangers lurk in benefits that are used only by women. Exercising options such as generous parental leave and part-time work slows down women’s careers. Having more women than men use these benefits can harm the careers of women in general due to the expectation that they are more likely to exercise them.  Family-friendly policies should actively recruit male participation to avoid inadvertently making it more difficult for women to gain access to essential management positions.

The above is a wide-ranging set of interventions, and there are many more not listed here to consider. Despite such a tall order, organizations will succeed in filling half their top management positions with talented, qualified women by attacking all the reasons they are absent today. Glass ceiling-inspired programs can do only so much if the leakage of talented women is happening on every lower floor of the building.  Each of these interventions has been shown to make a difference, and collectively, they can make ALL the difference.

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