Women are now fairly well represented in the corporate middle management ranks, but there is still a glaring gap when it comes to women in top business leadership roles. One of the most frequent reasons cited is that women hit the “pause button” on their career advancement while they focus more of their energy on raising their families. While that is true for many, I’d like to explore a few of the theories regarding why there are not more women at the top and what it would take to change the paradigm.
In a TED talk entitled “The Career Advice you Probably Didn’t Get,” leadership expert Susan Colantuono contrasts the development plans of male vs female middle managers who are being prepared to take the next step in their career. A key difference that she points out is that men are being coached and trained on how to run the business (Strategic, Financial and Business Acumen) while women are being coached and trained on leadership and interpersonal skills. Leadership and interpersonal skills are important, particularly at the middle management level, but they are not enough for success at the top of the organization.
Colantuono defines strategic, financial and business acumen as “the skill set that has to do with understanding where the organization is going, what its strategy is, what financial targets it has in place, and understanding your role in moving the organization forward.” It is assumed that anyone in the running for a top management role embodies this skill set, but Colantuano points to this critical arena as the missing 33 percent of the career success equation for women. Her argument is not that women aren’t capable of excelling at strategic, financial and business acumen, but rather that the career advice and coaching that women are being given does not emphasize the importance of boldly and consistently demonstrating mastery of this essential skill set. Colantuono encourages women to seek out opportunities to showcase their strategic, financial and business acumen in their roles and to highlight these accomplishments when being considered for advancement opportunities.
Well known TV news personalities Claire Shipman and Katty Kay wrote an article in The Atlantic called The Confidence Gap addressing the disparity in career success between genders. They argue that confidence matters as much as competence in career advancement, and they point to evidence that suggests women are generally less self-assured than men. The authors highlight examples of extremely talented and credentialed famous women who despite their success, exhibit self-doubt when reminiscing about key moments in their careers. Shipman and Kay believe that the way for women to become more confident is to stop thinking so much and just act, a thought and behavior pattern which will become more ingrained over time with neuro plasticity.
I have a slightly different interpretation of what Shipman and Kay label “The Confidence Gap”. The Atlantic article talks about how women often lack the confidence to put themselves in risky or stretch business leadership roles. The authors label it as self-confidence, but to me it seems more like women holding themselves to a higher standard than men. By that I mean that in some cases, women seem to be more literal when assessing themselves against posted job requirements. A man may look at a list of job requirements and confidently apply if he meets half of them — An equally competent woman may be more likely to feel that she has to have all of the boxes checked to apply and be successful, which may not be the case.
Closing the Gender Gap
Organizations, leaders, and women need to understand that the Critical Success Factors for advancing to top executive positions are different than those required for excelling in middle management positions. The old adage that “What got you here won’t get you there” is especially true for making it to the top of organizations. Here are three ways we can help close the gender gap.
- Make sure the development plans of high performing women with high potential focus on building strategic, financial, and business acumen.
- Encourage high potential women to post for internal positions that they view as a stretch for themselves, even when they feel they don’t meet all of the requirements.
- Place high potential women in Vistage Private Advisory Boards. Investing one day a month with talented men and women from other companies to work “on the business” rather than just working “in the business” will not only improve their strategic and business acumen, it will increase their confidence and help them become better leaders, make better decisions, and get better results.
As a Vistage Chair, I am deeply committed to helping close the gender gap at the top. That is why my Vistage practice has more women members than any other chair practice in town, and why I am actively recruiting and mentoring women to become Vistage Chairs. If you would like to join me as a member or a fellow chair, please call me at 612.877.1234 or email me at Brian.Davis@vistagechair.comBrian Davis, gender gap, glass ceiling, Vistage, Vistage Minnesota