Raising Women Leaders

When you think about the future workplace, where do your daughters fit in? Are they fetching coffee? Are they selling beauty creams? Are they developing cutting-edge software? Are they standing in front of a board room as CEO? There are so many pathways for a young girl to follow, but the toughest of all is the path to executive leadership.

(Women in STEM is a conversation for another day.)

So how do we create space for women leaders? How do we forge a path for daughters who want to get there?

Girl reading a map

The question right now is how do we create space for women leaders? How do we forge a path for our daughters who want to get there?

Think about the leadership team at your workplace. Think about the decision-makers and the policy-creators. Notice anything? When I look around, what I see is an appalling lack of female leadership. Sure, you can read about women leaders all over the internet, and you may even work for one, but women are still underrepresented as a whole. August of 2020 marks the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. It’s been one hundred years and we still don’t have equal representation in the board room. Isn’t it time to change the numbers?

Diverse group of people at a conference table

In 2018, half of the Russell 3000 Index companies had one or zero women on their board of directors, according to the 2020 Women on Boards Gender Diversity Index. That statistic is mirrored in the board composition of companies that have gone public in the last 4 years (49 out of 100 IPO companies had zero women on their board of directors). The Russell 3000 Index gives us a broad look at US companies, but interestingly, 62% of Fortune 1000 companies had at least 20% of their board seats filled by women, compared to only 5% that did not have any female representation. Does this mean that gender diversity is a component of business success? Does it mean that large US companies are held to higher standards of fairness and equality? What it certainly means is that “big business” is giving up on all-male boards and everyone else would do well to take notice. 

It may not be a matter of choice for much longer. Last year in California, a law was passed that would require publicly traded companies headquartered in the state to have at least one female on their board of directors. When Facebook went public in 2012 with an all-male board, protesters demanded they make a change. Public opinion seems to have shifted toward diversity. To this end, the 2020 Women on Boards campaign seeks to improve gender diversity of public companies by achieving 20% women in board seats by 2020. Each month they target a public company with zero women on their board. 2020 WOB has seen great results with this strategy, with at least one woman appointed to a board seat in 60% of targeted companies. It’s time for more companies to join them.

Women writing on a board

One institution making changes in gender representation is the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan’s College of Engineering has 13 out of 25 of their top leadership positions filled by women, particularly impressive in a field (engineering) that is typically dominated by men. Gallimore states that it was a change in the level of leadership ability required by candidates rather than a preferential treatment of women that lead to these numbers.

Not only do women make excellent leaders, but board diversity in itself seems to make a difference to company success. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, Fortune 500 companies with the highest number of female board seats (top 25%) had 42% greater sales than those in the bottom three quarters.

If diversity affects the bottom dollar, why are we still facing this issue?

Gender bias plays a huge role. You’re probably familiar with something called “like me” bias, meaning that we tend to lean toward candidate we think share similar qualities to ourselves. Another bias is related to gendered attributes. This can be recognized in the language used to describe men vs. women.

At the University of Michigan, they noticed the adjectives used to describe women’s accomplishments tended to be geared more toward social ability rather than technical skills. Focus was placed on spotting these biases in the hiring process, and leadership change came about as a result.

These gender biases are still trickling down to our children in the way we prepare them to deal with the outside world. We subconsciously tell our daughters a very specific story about what it means to be a woman.

  • We are expected to be better caretakers than leaders
  • Put our own needs aside for the needs of others
  • And politely step back when someone else has something to say

What happens if we teach young girls a different story?

What if women were raised to believe that their thoughts, opinions, experiences and technical skills had value and that there was a seat at the table for anyone who had something to contribute?

Girl with father

What if women were raised to believe that their thoughts, opinions, experiences and technical skills had value and that there was a seat at the table for anyone who had something to contribute?

The truth is, until we open more doors, we can’t know what we’ve been missing out on. Female board membership is increasing every year, but there is still a long way to go. What we need are companies, individual leaders, teachers and parents all creating pathways for women to lead.

Companies should seek out leadership candidates outside their traditional networks. Don’t limit yourselves to the recommendations of incumbent male board members. Reach out to a more diverse pool.

Individual leaders (particularly men) should sponsor and mentor women leaders. Vivian Giang, in her article for Fast Company, states that “. . . while science has told us that women need other women to get ahead, the reality is, there just aren’t enough women at the top who can transfer power to the next generation of women all by themselves.”

In schools, teachers should fill the gaps of male privilege by helping their female students learn to navigate their future career, take advantage of opportunities, and speak up for their accomplishments.

At home we should create an environment that nurtures ambition and confidence in our daughters as well as sons. Set the expectation that not only is it possible for a woman to lead, but it’s needed. We’re raising tomorrow’s leaders!

—Written by Nina Ottman

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4 thoughts

  1. “We are expected to be better caretakers than leaders
    Put our own needs aside for the needs of others
    And politely step back when someone else has something to say”

    Yes! There’s a whole lot to be explored in the element conditioning plays into the ways women have been rewarded for encouraging men and having their own voices spoken over.

    Liked by 1 person

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