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To Solve the Leadership Gender Gap, Women Must Take the Job

A 2020 Harvard Business Review article, What’s Really Holding Women Back?, concludes that very few women ascend to top management ranks because the hours are long and women are taking more accommodations. The article stuck with me, because while I can agree with each of these statements individually, linking them into a causal relationship just doesn’t feel right.

“…the ‘accommodations’ solution, ironically, tends to derail the careers of highly qualified women, leaving companies’ senior ranks depleted of some of their brightest female stars.”

The article spends some time presenting data to debunk the often-cited myth that women are having trouble climbing to positions of power because of challenges in balancing the competing demands of work and family. This work/family narrative does not account for childless women, or even for mothers with older children or with supportive home situations. The data clearly shows that men are also struggling to balance long hours with the demands of family. If all genders are suffering from long hours impacting their home life, why are men still promoted and women not? The article claims this disparity is because women are more likely to take accommodations and, thereby, derail their careers.

While I can accept that women are more likely than men to sign up for formal accommodations and that doing so would most definitely be detrimental to their careers, this answer feels like another convenient truth being over-applied without the supporting data. Are women who don’t take accommodations being promoted in numbers similar to men? Are high-achieving women, who have already sacrificed so much to even be considered for senior leadership positions, suddenly seeking accommodations in any considerable numbers? Women in line for senior leadership positions at today’s corporations are, by necessity, incredibly driven and capable. In my experience, women at this level have worked out their family conflicts long ago. I find it highly suspicious that these women would now chance killing the career they’ve work so hard for by asking for help in the form of formal accommodations. The research agrees with my suspicion.

A Bright Horizon study of 1,455 working mothers, the population most inclined to use these measures, found that only about 11% took advantage of formal accommodation programs. Women make up 52.5% of the college-educated workforce and 52% of all management jobs, yet they hold only 10% of top leadership positions in the S&P 1500. Even if these programs have a more significant impact on women than men, we cannot write off an unexplained discrepancy of more than 40 points to programs with an 11% participation rate.

The answer to the question, what’s really holding women back, is simple, just not easily solved. The answer is embedded under hundreds of years of perpetuated patriarchy found in the top ranks of businesses. Women simply don’t recognize themselves in the leadership modeled at most companies. Let me restate, women look at the current leadership at the top of their companies and decide they don’t want to be part of that particular club.

“Watching middle-aged white male after middle-age white male tell their war stories of sacrificing everything to close the sale was demoralizing…”

A 2015 Bain & Company study found that of men and women new to the job, women were slightly more ambitious than men. However, just two years later, while men’s ambition levels remained unchanged, women’s aspirations for the top jobs plummeted a stunning 60%. In follow on interviews of senior management, women were significantly less likely than men to see themselves fitting into the stereotypes of success in the company. The gap grew even wider when asking if women felt supported in their career aspirations.

Leadership examples in most corporations center on white men celebrated for pulling all-nighters or making important sales over rounds of golf. When corporate recognition focuses on these behaviors, women opt out. One woman attending a company conference is quoted as saying, “Watching middle-aged white male after middle-age white male tell their war stories of sacrificing everything to close the sale was demoralizing…” Basically, with just two short years of exposure to a company’s current models of success, women no longer want the job. As stated in a recent Forbes article, our leading institutions were built by, and for, men. Data and experience indicates women will walk away and pursue other career options rather than make themselves miserable.

“If men were going to change the leadership model, they would have done so by now.”

The answer lies in better, more inclusive leadership examples that encourage diverse thinking and styles of working. But frankly to get there, more women, who find themselves in the position to do so, need to take the job as it is now and make it better for the future. While there are many great men who are more than willing to help, women cannot expect them to know how to set a more female-friendly example.

Organizations have evolved over decades upon decades of male-dominated leadership. If men were going to change the leadership model, they would have done so by now. We won’t solve the gender gap at the top until women feel included and supported enough to want to be there. So strong women must opt in and be part of the solution.

Fearless and forever curious — a life-long learner, explorer, cat-herder, and engineer, leading software projects for some of the world’s coolest companies.

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