Women in Leadership – A Dream Derailed?

Women in Leadership – A Dream Derailed? April 13, 2015

Jessica had always been great with numbers. She made it into a top-tier business school, received her MBA, and was delighted to get a great job offer. Jessica was on her way to achieving her big goal of obtaining a leadership role as the CFO of a publicly traded company.

Fast forward several years later and the dream career isn’t working out. What has gone wrong? When I met with Jessica to explore her dilemma, I recognized the legacy of obstacles women in leadership face. One of the reasons Jessica has failed to be tapped for a top leadership position is that, in her role as Director of Finance, some colleagues found her to be too assertive and achievement-oriented. Jessica was trying to “do leadership” in the way she’d seen modeled by the senior men around her. However, research has shown that the typical traits of male leaders – being assertive, authoritative, direct — are not usually viewed as attractive in women. Jessica had displayed that behavior, and it had backfired.

Another obstacle facing Jessica was the difficulty of finding a workable balance between her professional and personal life. Over the several years since she joined the company, Jessica met her now husband, Dan, and they started a family. There had been times when Jessica had opted out of work-related situations for family reasons. She isn’t seen as somebody who may be worth investing in because the company isn’t clear where her real commitment is.  As a result, she’s starting to miss out on the flow of power, referrals, and development opportunities readily available to some of her male colleagues.

A significant reason women in leadership roles step off the career fast-track is the excessive hours required; unfortunately this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that reinforces the belief that women have a lesser career commitment. On a psychological level we’re going up against cognitive bias, a dynamic wherein people naturally notice behavior that supports their view, but not behavior that contradicts it. Jessica’s managers have noticed when she takes time off or leaves early for family reasons, but they don’t notice as much when she stays late to help her team finish a project. They perceive more stereotypical behavior than is really happening.

Women in leadership positions continue to be under-represented: Only 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 8 percent of top leadership positions are held by women. And yet, the emerging trend toward a more transformational leadership model is rewriting the book on what’s required to lead effectively. Women bring unique strengths that can propel our careers and enhance our success in top leadership roles—if we manage to avoid certain pitfalls, like Jessica’s encounter with the mismatch between gender stereotypes and leader stereotypes, and her difficulty attaining an acceptable work/life balance.

What will it take to apply women’s leadership advantage for organizational success? Emerging leadership models call for strengths more frequently associated with women. In our next blog we’ll explore answers to the dilemmas facing rising female leaders like Jessica. Her dream—and yours—need not be derailed, if women learn to bring our strengths to bear on the obstacles we face.

Learn more about joining a women in leadership executive coaching group with the True North’s Women’s Forum or contact me for a private consultation.