As we begin 2019, businesses around the world are committing to increasing diversity in their organizations. It’s no secret that the corporate world has a long way to go in creating equitable workplaces, and the vast underrepresentation of women in leadership roles is problematic. According to Pew, the share of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies reached an all-time high of 6.4 percent in 2017, yet fell to 4.8 percent in 2018. These numbers are unacceptable, and it is critical that we act to elevate women.
From my own journey, I have experienced firsthand just how important creating a network is to professional growth. Throughout my career I have worked hard to cultivate a network of male and female sponsors, which has been a great benefit. By doing this, I essentially made my own luck. When my contacts were approached by peers looking to hire new leadership, I had the advantage of being at the top of their minds — just because of our past interactions.
Plus, I am lucky to have a supportive husband by my side who has truly encouraged and enabled me to operate on an equal playing field with men. To make career advancement a reality for all women, it’s critical that more men step up to encourage, mentor and guide women toward the path to leadership. For me personally, I am happiest when I mentor young women and men about leadership and creating balance and satisfaction in their lives. As we work to achieve gender equity in the workplace, I hope to see more women and men taking on the role of mentors to the next generation.
In this exclusive Q&A with Bonnie Marcus, an executive coach who helps professional women gain the visibility and credibility they need to have a fulfilling career, we examine how women can grow to become leaders in the workplace and how organizations can support them.
Amy Wilson: What are some of the biggest challenges you have seen professional women face in advancing at work?
Bonnie Marcus: There are definitely the traditional ones that we see come up over and over again in research studies. For example, there’s unconscious bias which manifests itself in the form of social stereotypes that individuals form outside of conscious awareness. In the workplace, we often see this when women are placed on the “mommy track,” meaning senior leaders feel mothers cannot raise a family and also be an ambitious, executive-level member of the company.
There’s also a lack of sponsorship opportunities for women. Because men historically tend to sponsor other men, the opportunities for women are scarce. Without sponsorship, it’s more difficult for women to grow to the executive level. And for women, it becomes discouraging to look up and only see men in leadership positions time after time.
Finally, the biggest challenge of all is inflexibility like unmovable working hours or not being able to work at home when necessary. This lack of understanding makes women choose one or the other: employee or mother. There’s subtle discrimination against women, and unfortunately it grows if a woman decides to become a mother. I often hear stories where a woman is a rockstar on the path to quick advancement, yet after even a brief maternity leave, her daily responsibilities diminish. Whether it’s in the form of removing high profile clients from her portfolio or ensuring accounts are local only, there is often the misconception that being a mother automatically means women will be less ambitious at work and that they won’t want to travel.
What’s your advice for companies looking to diversify their workforce and place women in leadership positions?
Don’t assume women who are mothers lose their ambition. Sure, priorities change, but that doesn’t mean they no longer want to succeed at their job or grow into a leadership role. Companies are better able to retain smart women who have leadership potential if they provide more flexibility. Inflexibility comes in many forms and shuts women out. For example, if a woman is unable to leave the office at 3:00 pm for school pickup after signing on early at 7:00 am, it makes it difficult for her to successfully perform as both a mother and a businesswoman. The same goes for sick days. If an employee is sick, they are granted a sick day. Extending this to children makes it more feasible for women to find the balance of mother and worker. Companies can’t penalize women for having a life outside of work and need to give women the opportunity to opt in easily.
Additionally, businesses need to implement formal sponsorship programs. It’s so important, but often overlooked. These programs give women the kind of platform and structure they need to work with someone at a higher level. For men at the executive level who want to help women advance, but aren’t sure how to get started, it’s as simple as this: start including women in your networks. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big, formal step like going out and finding a specific woman to sponsor. As a woman, it’s really hard trying to access these power networks that are all male. Just begin by inviting women to participate more.
Are any of the barriers women face on the road to advancement self-made?
Of course! Because women don’t often look up and see other women like themselves at the executive level, it’s natural for them to experience self-doubt. They may ask themselves, “Am I smart enough?” or “Am I good enough?” They also may not feel confident advocating for themselves, meaning they don’t speak up about what they want and they don’t make themselves visible. In a survey conducted by Women’s Success Coaching, 30 percent of professional women answered that they do not know what their professional value proposition is. For women to become leaders, identifying this value is the first place to start. Then, they must start to focus on making it visible.
Unfortunately, this self-doubt doesn’t necessarily end once a woman has achieved her dream role. It’s not uncommon to experience imposter syndrome in the form of, “I don’t deserve this” or “It was just a matter of luck.” The more ambitious and high-achieving a woman is, the more likely she will experience these types of feelings.
At what point in a woman’s career do you typically find she faces challenges in advancement?
A woman tends to be in the workplace for a few years before she realizes that you can work super hard and it won’t necessarily mean you’re going to get promoted. There’s usually an awakening at that point. They begin to understand that they really need to pay attention to workplace dynamics and what’s going on politically within the company to achieve growth.
What’s your advice for women who are facing advancement challenges and seeking to overcome them?
Women can’t just focus on their work. It’s not enough to just be a superstar at your job. You must build a network of strong allies and champions to ensure that other people know how valuable you are. Again, it’s about being visible. And this visibility must extend both internally and externally. You never know when an external network could be a source for a new job opportunity. Finding a network in your industry, while also having a mentor outside of your company is really useful.
Amy Wilson is Senior Vice President of Product at SAP SuccessFactors.