Prejudice and microaggressions continue to hinder women's path to executive positions in their companies, while there is still a lack of fruitful sponsorship of female talent.
The Woman Post | Daniel Vargas Bozzetto
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Although it is not the first time that a woman has reached so high (remember Margaret Thatcher, Isabel Perón or the prominent Indira Gandhi, to name a few), the inauguration of Kamala Harris as the new vice president of the United States promises to be the Jordan River Crossing of the fight against gender inequalities. And this is because it has come in the middle of a feminist revolution that is overturning old paradigms in all areas of society, including the business world. However, the promised land is still far away.
The 2021 edition of Oliver Wyman's Women in Leadership Report is presented with raw information: "Only one in four executive leaders is a woman." Stated more precisely, this means that only 12% of the roles directly related to profit and loss in America's 3,000 largest companies are filled by women, and only 6% of these are led by women. The report, whose name is Making The Invisible Visible, aims to expose all the problems that women face when they aspire to executive positions in their companies.
History provides us with many examples of women who have managed to excel in countless fields despite gender inequalities and the added difficulty of overcoming them. It follows that, if unleashed, the incredible potential that women possess would bring about major changes in the very fabric of society. The question, then, is not whether or not women can be good leaders, but why they are not getting as many high-level executive positions as they naturally are.
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Before answering that question, Oliver Wyman's report clarifies the fact that corporate work environments are evolving towards more collaborative and inclusive styles that women leaders are fostering. However, the pieces of the system are still in the form of an old model where the vast majority of employees were men. To prevent the old "norms" from overriding the selection of the kind of leaders the new style seeks to grow, the leadership model must be changed.
Male preponderance goes on to indirectly shape business cultures through "unconscious and implicit biases" that end up affecting the way both men and women experience their journey to the top. Women have reported how energetically draining it is to have to overcome such biases in order to effectively convey their ideas or positions on a certain topic related to their work. These biases often turn into microaggressions such as "having ideas wrongly attributed to others, being discussed in meetings, or receiving unconstructive comments," for example. A vice president of an insurance company pointed out that being a woman, raising your voice or having a strong opinion will make you look “too passionate and aggressive”, while the same behavior would be taken as assertive if you are a man. Research shows that these biases and behaviors end up wearing down on women, to the point of making them "choose to exit the workforce or choose a different career."
Another obstacle that separates women from senior positions is the fact that they are “more socialized as rule-followers from an early age”, a condition that makes them perceive life differently once they are adults. According to the report, women should feel 100% confident that they have what it takes before applying for a job, while men feel good at 60%, although self-confidence does not imply being capable or having enough experience. In this way, women are involuntarily left out of executive positions, and those who reach CEO do so three to five years later than men.
But how can this situation evolve into a healthier one? As the report explains, "the problem and its solution begin with decision-makers, who have the power to drive changes in corporate culture." And part of this solution is taking Inclusion and Diversity (R&D) version 1.0 to the next level, allowing companies to "get to the root of the challenges" after identifying the symptoms of the problem. That is, create a more honest atmosphere in which organizations can have a better understanding and decision about biases and factors that can be obstacles in the way of women to higher positions.
However, this is not enough to balance the opportunities. For women to reach the highest positions, sponsorship is required as it is the "greatest lever" to help them overcome gender disparities. For a number of reasons, women endure the lack of this kind of key support in many organizations, although sponsors are an essential asset for them, as they use their reputation and credibility to curb prejudice. That is why there is a pressing need to convert mentoring into sponsorship within companies.
A C-suite executive who chooses to remain anonymous claims that her sponsor gave her opportunities while taking time to teach her. “Sometimes he had projects where he didn't need me, but he would ask me if he was interested and he would have me participate in meetings just to give me repeat opportunities,” she says.