The Female Leadership Experience: 7 Ways Corporate Cultures Need To Change In Order To Retain Women Leaders

Trading a college campus for corporate life where women were told in less than subtle ways that the ticket to success was to emulate men, I struggled. It should never have happened to me.  Highly intelligent, strong (and some famous) trail blazer women mentored me. Educated, smart, mentored, sponsored, ambitious and fully in control (I thought) of my career and life, I was poised to take my place in corporate America. In a matter of months I lost my ability to think like a girl.

Quickly, I learned what would be rewarded and what would not. Being only one of a few women in the culture, I didn’t fit in.  So I embarked upon a course that would “fix me” in ways that I thought were needed. If I only tried, I could become more like them.  I took classes and training to overcome what I thought were my inabilities, my road blocks, my short-comings.

I began to dress differently, eschewing bright colors for button-down oxford shirts and well-tailored suits.  The long hair I had was cut short and I even took a golf lesson not because I loved it but because all of the men I worked with played golf!  I learned to play poker and I read the sports page just so I could take part in the office conversations and the after-hours activities where deals were cut, promotions were decided. One day, in a moment of realization, I had reached my breaking point.  Returning from a trip that took me to 15 different cities in 7 days, I went to my office at 7:00 a.m. only to find a note from my boss asking me to justify my airfare expense along with a question that was meant to be a joke:  “While in New York, did you get your shopping fix?”  Emotional and tired, I waited for him to arrive, marched into his office and told him that the entire company was made up of a bunch of sexist, closed-minded men.  I left his office, locked myself in a bathroom stall, and cried.  Wiping the tears from my eyes and fixing the running mascara, I returned to my office letting no one in on my agony.

The next day I was asked to go to lunch with the President of our West Coast Division.  Certain I was going to be fired, I was 23 years old and on my way to lunch with this powerful man who ran the entire company.   Placing me squarely in the catbird seat, he grilled me on why I thought the culture was sexist.  Why it was so difficult for me to succeed? Why I felt uncomfortable?  Why continue the charade, I thought so I told him the truth. Much to my shock, he concluded the lunch by saying that he agreed with me.  He sought my help and advice for changing the culture, a culture he saw as detrimental to long-term success.  He said he wanted talent and he didn’t care what gender, race or type it came in as long as it was human!

Now steeped in organizational systems, which I’ve studied for over 20 years, I clearly see what was impossible for me to understand at 23.   Cultures take on the characteristics and forms and personalities of the leaders.  Cultures have a strong, homogenizing effect upon people, not only on their collective thinking but also on behaviors and even the dress and manners of the executives.  Male-dominated cultures, over time, make even the most competent and strong women begin to doubt themselves.

According to clinical psychologist Leslie Pratch in her ground breaking research conducted while at the Chicago Booth School of Management, “because the male gender role legitimizes leadership in men, male leaders may be freer to diverge from stereotypes of masculinity. Female leaders are relatively constrained in the behaviors that will be perceived as effective because of the conflict they face as women and leaders.”

Liz Ryan, of Business Week once said “It’s truly amazing that we can even dress ourselves!  Look on any shelf in the bookstore or the myriad of training programs directed to women and one can see a lineup of products devoted to helping women fix what is wrong with them.”   Liz says the titles tell us, “We don’t know how to negotiate.  We don’t speak up.  We have no self-confidence. We’re not prepared for the board room.  We act like girls.  Today, even women leaders have joined that chorus of fixing the feminine: we have an “ambition gap”, we need more self-confidence, and we opt out too early in our careers.  While these things may indeed be true, there is something missing in this dialogue.

Instead of trying to fix our feminine selves to fit, perhaps we need to continue to change the world of work to allow, accept and even seek the different ways we women view and communicate and lead. Let’s begin by accepting that the skills and insights that women bring don’t need to be fixed or changed or rearranged simply because they are feminine.  They need to be embraced and celebrated by corporations and cultures.  Surprisingly, in the organizations that are enlightened enough to recognize the value of this, something miraculous happens. Profits increase (by almost 32%). Better decisions are made when even only one woman is a member of the team. Where the feminine perspectives of leadership are accepted and encouraged men grow too!  Here are 7 ways corporate cultures need to change in order to retain and utilize women and their talents:

7 Ways To Change Corporate Cultures To Retain and Utilize the Skills of Women Leaders:

1)    Make sponsorship of women a strategic priority:  Research shows that sponsorship by senior male executives does not easily happen due to the unease men have in sponsoring younger women.  A perception of the sponsorship relationship all too often thwarts the best intentions.  Let’s get real here.  If sponsorships are made a strategic priority and embraced by high level leaders, perceptions can change rapidly. The fact is that we can no longer afford to not sponsor women leaders. If your leaders are not up to the task, get them trained and no longer accept this as an excuse.

2)    If women leave, dig deeper for why and don’t assume it is for more work/life balance. Numerous women leave to start their own firms and anyone who has ever been in a start-up knows it is not conducive to work/life balance.  Research shows that women leave because they do not want to spend years playing politics, being passed over in promotions and would rather spend the time building their own firms where they can be rewarded and compensated due to their efforts and outcomes. Work/life balance issues are real for women and men but women aren’t leaving Corporate America in droves on this issue alone.

3)    Open up the board room: Way too many have bought the argument that women are not in the Board room because they have not been prepared for board room activities.  This argument is getting old and no longer believable.  Women are not in Board rooms because they are often excluded from the very networks that open doors to board room appointments. Make putting a woman on your board a corporate goal and you will be amazed at the number of competent and qualified women that can be found ready to serve.

4)    Take corporate women initiatives out of the pink ghetto and fund them like you mean it. Almost every major corporation has a women’s initiative which is usually poorly funded, has very little voice in the organization and is touted in public relations efforts or annual reports but has no clout.  Turn these initiatives into powerful recruiting tools, sources of professional development.  Not because it is a nice thing to do, or the right thing to do, but because it effects the bottom-line profit in a very positive and major way.

5)    If you are the CEO and there are no women in the room, on the team, on the committee, be the first to ask why (and keep asking.) When women are in the room, better decisions are made, better ideas come about and the group actually increases in I.Q.  Those reasons alone should be the impetus behind the question every CEO should be asking.  Where are the women?

6)    When plum assignments, promotions or career making opportunities appear on the landscape, make sure women are being considered. If not, ask why.  Believe it or not, women are routinely passed over for career making opportunities without even being asked if they were interested!  Do ask….and keep asking.

7)    Speak up, speak forcefully, and speak often in support of women leaders:  Leaders actions and words effect cultures.  When Lee Iacocca returned to Chrysler, he smoked cigars.  Guess what, all of the guys on his team started smoking cigars.  For better or worse, we human beings tend to emulate our leaders.  So set the stage.  Speak up, speak forcefully and speak often in support of women leaders.



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