I remember well a relative commenting on being unflustered on her promotion to the position of Commissioner of Income Tax in Jamaica. She was the first woman to be appointed to that role. An insightful comment she made has stayed with me over the years. She said that many women have bought into the belief perpetuated by men, that there is some mystique about senior executive leadership. This belief has prevented many women from accepting senior appointments, particularly roles that have been traditionally dominated by men.
Then I read an article in The New York Times where Virginia M. Rometty, the first woman to be appointed as the President and CEO of IBM, recounted that early in her career she was offered a ‘big job.’ In her words, “I right away said, you know what? I’m not ready for this job. I need more time, I need more experience and then I could really do it well.” So she told the recruiter she needed time to think about it. That night, her husband asked her, “Do you think a man would have ever answered that question that way?”
These two cases made me ask the question – are women really not qualified or do they really think that they are not qualified to take on senior leadership roles?
In her book Les femmes au secours de l’économie, Monique Jérome –Forget presents data that provides compelling evidence that women have the education, talents and experience that make them ready for senior leadership roles.
This being the case, why would some women feel that they are not ready for senior leadership? Could it be that there is a mental glass ceiling that limits self-confidence, makes us risk averse and so cautious to prevent us from accepting senior leadership roles?
It is ironic that being cautious and risk-averse are the traits that are needed in boardrooms and senior executive leadership positions. A 2004 Catalyst study of 353 Fortune 500 companies found that firms with more diversity throughout the ranks, including the presence of women, have better returns on investment.
Networking is good, but not enough
In Montreal, I am finding more networking and learning opportunities to support women who aspire to become senior leaders and board members. In these forums women are very often exposed to successful women who demystify senior leadership and provide testimonials of how they advanced in their careers and now thrive in male-dominated corporate boardrooms.
Without discounting the value of networking events and conferences, I would say that these activities are not enough. There needs to be a stronger connection between these networking activities and corporate initiatives to unite efforts that encourage women to overcome the psychological insecurities that are played out in the objections they make when they are offered senior leadership opportunities.
Some suggestions to help women break the mental glass ceiling
- Externalize the values of the company by encouraging employees to accept volunteer leadership positions on the boards of professional associations, interest groups and non-profit organizations that share the same values of the company. In this way, women gain experience in governance and leadership and expand their network and professional profile in a way that is beneficial to their career and the organizations in which they serve.
- Corporations should establish programs that encourage employees to broaden their exposure to the experiences of other professionals by having internal and external mentors. Corporations should not see the pairing of employees with external mentors as “training for the competition.” Great workplaces attract, engage and retain the best employees, who won’t leave if they‘re able to see possibilities for advancement based on merit.
- Corporations with formal policies on diversity and the development of leadership talent should establish formal partnerships with business networks and forums that support the advancement of women. In this way professional women can identify corporations that provide formal support for women aspiring to senior leadership positions and explore opportunities for advancement in these companies.
- When identifying their most promising leadership talent, corporations should ensure that they include rotation programs that provide exposure to all aspects of the business and in so doing, help demystify senior leadership roles in departments that have traditionally been led by men.
- Women also need to make the effort to push beyond their comfort zone and break through the confines of their mental glass ceiling. On this point, the advice of Marissa Mayer – CEO of Yahoo! is relevant: “I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough. Sometimes that’s a sign that something really good is about to happen. You’re about to grow and learn a lot about yourself.”
A final word on the real corporate glass ceiling
I would not want to leave readers with the impression that all women have a mental glass ceiling that makes them reluctant to accept senior leadership positions. As Monique Jerome-Forget points out in her book, the corporate glass ceiling does exist. It is where there is a startling reduction in the percentage of women in the senior leadership and board membership roles. According to a Catalyst Report in February 2021, despite progress, the gender gap is still wide at senior levels.
Very few women are CEOs of the world’s largest corporations. As of the August 2020 Fortune Global list, only 13 women (2.6%) were CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies—and all of them were White.
The Catalyst Report cited a 2020 analysis by Mercer of over 1,100 organizations across the world found a leaky pipeline for women in leadership, with the representation of women decreasing as the levels progress:
Senior managers: 29%
Support staff: 47%
The data clearly shows us that much work must be done by corporations to encourage and promote women to senior positions and in so doing, we all benefit from the talent, education and skills of women. I will end my post with a quote from Catalyst’s Women in Leadership report:
“High-potential women advance more slowly than their male peers, in terms of both career progression and pay, even though they employ career management strategies similar to men’s. Organizations that neglect this critical talent-management issue risk lagging their competitors in attracting, developing, and retaining the best candidates to serve as the next generation of leaders.”