Why Can't More Women Break Into the Leadership Ranks?

Mar 7, 2014
9 Min Read
Why Can't More Women Break Into the Leadership Ranks?

As International Women’s Day is celebrated on Saturday, consider:

  • 64% of women have the lowest position in law firms, such as staff attorney jobs, while only 17% garner top spots such as equity partners, reports the National Association of Women Lawyers.
  • While women make up nearly two-thirds of the U.S. workforce and are more educated, they hold less than 20% of leadership positions across all sectors, finds a University of Denver study.
  • Based on median annual earnings for full-time year-round workers, women earned 76.5% of men’s earnings in 2012, finds a Catalyst survey.

While 70% of 4,100 professionals surveyed in 32 countries by Accenture say that the number of women in leadership roles will increase by 2020, there are still problems in female advancement in the workplace.

Do you think women are getting ahead? Your answer may depend on where you work, your profession or your race.  Because even thought leaders can't seem to agree on what women should -- or should not -- be doing in order to move into leadership roles.

For example,  Dr. Lois P. Frankel wrote in her book that women undermine themselves in dozens of unconscious ways, such as giving limp handshakes, ragging on other women or dithering about decisions.

She believes the reason that women continue to make some of the same mistakes (such as avoiding negotiating) is because of socialization.

“Women are bombarded with messages from the time they are infants about how they are supposed to act, look, and be.  These messages are reinforced through the media, religious institutions, Madison Avenue and so forth,” Frankel says. “When they venture outside of these narrowly defined boundaries they’re called names that suggest they are less than feminine – even when it’s not at all true.”

She says that women are put “between a rock and a hard place” because they are forced to make a choice “of whether to weather the name-calling and maintain their self-respect or revert to socially acceptable stereotypes and be liked.”

While Frankel believes women have broken through the glass ceiling, she contends they are stuck in the “glass treehouse.”

“The ‘glass treehouse’ is the most senior level of executive management such as CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, etc. and boards of directors,” Frankel says. “This is where decisions are made and where the real power lies.”

Frankel says that while women seeking advancement know they may have to deal with sex discrimination and other biases, the “one sticking point” for women continues to be “the many roles they play at home and at work.”

“Except for women of privilege and power who have unlimited resources to get the help they need at home, most women struggle with the juggle of high power/high profile jobs and the responsibilities that are expected at home,” she says. “These responsibilities can include caring for spouses, children, and aging parents and more household responsibilities than their male counterparts.”

Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor, says the idea that women should “lean in” as advocated by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is ruining life for other women.

“Why? Because unlike most men, women — particularly women with children — are still expected to work that 'second shift' at home. Men today do more housework and childcare than men in their fathers’ generation, but women today still do far more housework and childcare than men,” Brooks writes in Foreign Policy.

Frankel says that women are often forced to make difficult choices between “upward mobility and living their personal values."

“Our country really needs to do a better job of providing support to women so that they don’t have to burn the candle at both ends. When a talented woman opts out everyone loses,” Frankel says.

Frankel says she’s updated her "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office," to include feedback she received from other women, and says she believes the most important addition is the discussion of the boundaries and rules of the workplace playing field and how they “impact women of color.”

“The playing field is the widest for white men, making it virtually impossible for them to go out of bounds short of egregious mistakes,” she says. “The boundaries then come in for white women and are most narrow for women of color, making it easy for them unknowingly go out of bounds.”

In Frankel’s book, she lists several ways that women undermine themselves on the job, such as :

  • Doing the work of others. “Stop volunteering for low-profile, low-impact assignments,” she writes. “If necessary, sit on your hand rather than raise it.”
  • Avoiding office politics. “Remember: The quid pro quo of politics is something in exchange for something else. Don’t just give in; think about what you want in exchange. Don’t be afraid to cash in your chips,” she writes.
  • Not speaking up. When you’re ready to make a career move, talk about it out loud. “Let people know you’re ready for the next challenge,” she writes. “The more people you talk to about it, the more likely you are to hear about opportunities when they arise.”
  • Giving away their ideas.  When someone proposes the same thing you previously suggested, bring the attention back to where the idea originated from by saying, “Thank you for building on my original suggestion, Joe. Let me add a few things that I’m certain we’ll agree on,” she advises.
  • Apologizing. “When you do make a mistake worth apologizing for, do so only once, then move into a problem solving mode,” she suggests.
  • Using touchy-feely language. Instead of saying "It feels like we should..." instead say "I believe it would be best to...," Frankel suggests. When using words like "feel" and "might," you convey less-assertive language. Learn to edit your emails so that you strengthen your message with more businesslike prose.

"The main thing I want people to know is that my book doesn’t suggest that women be mean and nasty or that they should imitate male behavior. When I talk about ‘nice girl,’ I am referring to behaving like that nice little girl you were taught to be in childhood and not adding adult woman behaviors,” Frankel says. “Nice is necessary for success, it’s simply not sufficient.”

Do you believe women hold themselves back or they just need to "lean in"?

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