Two of the most prominent examples of women who have made it to the top of the corporate ladder have been getting a lot of press and stirring up much debate over the last few weeks: Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo. The waves they have caused are crashing on the shores of traditionalist thinking.
At the same time these two powerful women are making headlines, I have noticed one of the other leading topics du jour is the lack of women in leadership positions. The dearth of women in positions of power is an important issue and fully deserves the airtime it is receiving. But the issue deserves more than just active discussion; it requires positive action and a genuine desire to effect change.
The overarching message Sandberg delivers is that women are their own worst enemies when it comes to professional advancement. From an early age, societal norms have encouraged women to exclude themselves from positions of power, with the obvious result that most women do limit their own ambitions and career paths. She incites women to be the solution to the drought of women in leadership roles by taking control of their own careers. This includes assuming they are entitled to be included in positions of power, rather waiting to be granted permission. I say, the invitation to the leadership table is not in the mail, you need to step up and sit yourself down if you want it.
Let me share some of the statistics from Lean In. While these are drawn from the American experience, they reflect the Canadian experience and demonstrate how gender stereotyping influence women’s self-perceptions.
• Only 12 of Fortune 500s CEOs are women;
• 14 per cent of executive office positions are held by women;
• in a survey of 4,000 employees of large companies, 50 per cent fewer women than men indicated a desire to be CEO;
• despite outperforming their male colleagues, female surgeons give themselves lower grades; and
• women are more likely to attribute success to luck or help from others, and blame their lack of ability when they fail, while men attribute success to their innate awesomeness and take less ownership of failures.
I believe this last point is one of the key self-imposed barriers to women assuming leadership positions. Many of us suffer from two serious afflictions: the imposter syndrome and perfectionism. Unless we believe we are fully qualified, or over-qualified for a position, and know exactly how to do the job, we don’t put ourselves forward as candidates for promotion or for the next big retainer. Men, typically, don’t suffer from that inhibition.
There are far, far too many books, articles, and blogs in circulation where women are bemoaning the fact they just can’t be a “superwoman.” But who on earth said we have to be? Women can be highly successful in their careers, they can assume leadership positions, and they can have a fulfilling personal and family life all at the same time. Men do it and so can women. Of course it would be much easier to achieve if we stopped imposing a standard of perfection on each area of our lives, and we allowed and encouraged others to share our burdens and support our career goals.
Look around. The old adage that behind every successful man there is a woman works both ways. Behind every powerful and successful modern woman there is likely a strong and supportive partner or other personal sponsor who can and does help maintain the leader. You don’t need to, and should not, do it all yourself to be a leader.
Marissa Mayer knows that too. When she passed the directive to end the remote work arrangements that had become common place in her company (and in many other tech companies), she knew what she was about. Companies do not thrive when employees are all working in splendid isolation. Nor do the individual employees. To succeed and excel long-term in a workplace typically involves working in a collaborative environment. Professional development requires practice as well as the opportunity to see how others handle problems and learning from observation as well as from personal trial and error.
Successful employees who move into more powerful positions within an organization typically have strong mentor relationships, but more importantly assertive sponsors who promote the employee to move into progressively more challenging and senior positions. It’s tough to receive good mentorship or to forge meaningful bonds with a sponsor when you are missing out on face time with the people who can advance your career.
The Law Society of Upper Canada’s Justicia Project confirms the importance of good mentorship and finding a career sponsor for professional advancement of women lawyers. In February 2013, it released “Justicia Guide to Women’s Leadership in Law Firms,” the latest in its resources to assist women lawyers to succeed in their chosen profession. The guide emphasizes that female role models play an important role in helping junior members of the bar to learn and develop leadership skills. They also provide motivation to the junior lawyers to aspire to positions of power and influence in their own right.
Sponsors are particularly key to success. “Sponsorship is a long-term, hands-on commitment to encouraging, fighting for and creating advancement opportunities for high-potential individuals,” it states. Sponsorship is critical for an aspiring leader to achieve a power position. Finding, maintaining, and enhancing sponsorship and mentorship relationships require one-on-one time. Realistically they just won’t work without direct, personal involvement by both parties.
The Justicia guide emphasizes the fact companies with higher female representation in leadership roles tend to outperform their competitors. Women bring a diversity of leadership styles and viewpoints to the table. Interestingly, the guide says: “Law firms that are run by a diverse group of leaders are more likely to be in tune with the needs of the public and better able to advance the interests of clients.” So, to the extent we want our law firms to be successful over the long-term, we should be actively sponsoring and promoting the careers of women and encouraging our more junior female colleagues to seek out opportunities for leadership. You go girls!