If you’re in people development, your goal should be to empower everyone in your organization to succeed on their own terms. Unfortunately, despite all the talk about gender equality in the workplace, there are still stubborn gaps in leadership and C-suite gender representation around the world. And the numbers haven't improved a whole lot in recent years.
This is a complex and frustrating puzzle, and one with a long history. Addressing the gender gap in executive representation takes effort, understanding, and above all else, the right resources and support. It also requires honest and inclusive conversations.
Recently, I spoke with Jodi Leffingwell, author, and Regional Learning Specialist at SmileDirectClub. Jodi is an L&D practitioner with a depth of experience helping people - including driven and talented women - to define and pursue their career goals.
We kicked things off by discussing a tough problem: why do so many women face barriers in achieving their goals in the workplace?
Lately, Jodi has been preparing for her next book examining the opportunities and challenges many women deal with in the middle of their careers.
“As a woman who is in mid-career,” says Jodi, “I took a step back and wondered, how come there are so many women who get to this level but would never go beyond?”
“Statistically, there’s about 36% of women who fall into this mid-level career category. I found that very interesting. As you get higher up on the seniority pyramid, the percentages of women represented start to go down.”
As Jodi explains, the statistics paint a clear picture. “26% of senior-level executives are women. Only 11% of top earners are women. And based on the S&P 500, only 5-6% of CEO roles are women. I wanted to know what the barriers were, and what we can all do about it.”
One major factor contributing to this gap? Imposter syndrome.
The statistics paint a clear picture. “26% of senior level executives are women. 11% of top earners are women. And based on the S&P 500, only 5-6% of CEO roles are women."
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A lot of women can be hindered by feelings of insecurity in their performance and abilities, and a sense of not being able to match up against expectations. As Jodi explains, that’s imposter syndrome in action - a trend with a long and complicated history.
“Imposter syndrome is a question of gender roles and inequities passed on through centuries of social conditioning,” says Jodi. “It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s up to us to decide how to recognize it, and what to do about it.”
As Jodi explains, while a lot of women struggle to overcome imposter syndrome, simply being aware of these pressures can really help. “It’s one of the only things we can control: how we feel about ourselves and our competencies.”
For women, it’s important to actively build confidence in your performance and capability. “Women are far less likely to apply for a job or a promotion if they don’t meet every single bullet on the job description,” says Jodi. “In comparison, men are generally more confident in their competencies, and they’ll apply even if they don’t meet all of the criteria. We have to overcome these barriers and understand that we deserve more.”
“Women are far less likely to apply for a job or a promotion if they don’t meet every single bullet on the job description. In comparison, men are generally more confident in their competencies, and they’ll apply even if they don’t meet all of the criteria."
While researching her book, Jodi also discovered a lot about the strengths women bring to the workplace, and how they can draw on these strengths to make their mark.
“One of the biggest things I uncovered is how important emotional intelligence is to breaking down these barriers,” says Jodi. “It’s really our superpower, and it’s one of the ways we’re able to add value to our leadership. As a group, we’re more socially aware, and we have strengths in social management.”
“The question is how to leverage this emotional intelligence every day with the people we lead. It’s about overcoming the fear of speaking up, sharing ideas, and being creative. So many women at the mid-level have great ideas, but they shut themselves down because they’re afraid of going against the grain. That’s a big area of opportunity.”
Expressing this emotional intelligence doesn’t just benefit women, either. Unlocking better decisions and strategies can do amazing things for every part of a business.
So, how can leaders help women break through these barriers and grow professionally?
Alongside diagnosing the trends getting in the way of women achieving their goals, Jodi also lays down the challenge for business leaders to help women advance their careers.
“The book is also a call to action,” says Jodi. “I’m asking, what do we need from business leaders to change the way we perceive ourselves? We need honest feedback, and we need to be better at negotiating opportunities when they arise. We need to develop our leadership potential to provide people with the resources they need to grow, so that they do get to the C-suite and get a seat at the table.”
“That’s where this book came from: wanting to support women, and to give them a sounding board for their development. The goal is to leave every person better than we found them with our leadership, our words, and our actions.”
A lot of companies are willing and ready to support women to achieve their goals, but they might not know where to start. As Jodi explains, there are a few practical steps and strategies organizations can use.
“First of all, career mapping is essential,” says Jodi. “You have to ask people what they want to do and where they want to go. I’ve been fortunate to work in organizations with a deep interest in leveraging my talents and skillsets. It’s more than just a review at the end of the year - ideally, you have quarterly check-ups to track progress.”
This goes beyond simple performance review. When done well, career mapping offers a concrete action plan for women to advance in their careers.
“Another thing that really works is polling your team to find what they need, what they’d like to learn about, and how you can help,” says Jodi. “For example, at SmileDirectClub, my team has asked for training about leadership styles, and driving results through emotional intelligence.”
“By shaping content to share with your team, you show them that you care about their development, and you’re really listening to what they’re saying.”
As Jodi explains, supporting your team’s development - especially women - is about offering a forum for discussion and community-building around leadership.
“It’s important to give your teams a forum for open discussion, especially right now during the COVID pandemic,” says Jodi. “Lately, I’ve hosted discussions for people wanting to take the time to learn something and add to their leadership skills.”
For smaller organizations, hosting leadership forums might sound like a challenge. But as Jodi explains, there are still plenty of things you can do. “Some organizations aren’t fortunate enough to have big L&D departments,” says Jodi. “In that case, it’s down to leaders to carve out time for team development.”
“I’ve interviewed women across the world who don’t have access to formal programs, but there’s still so much people can do. Form a think tank, build a network, or join a leadership group. With a little innovation, you can always bring something to the table.”
At the end of the day, real change always comes from the bottom-up, not top-down. Our role as leaders is to create an environment that allows that bottom-up exchange to happen.
When it comes to personal development, some people may not be as forthcoming as others. But as Jodi says, it’s up to company leadership to encourage people to speak up. “You need to ask your people what they want to achieve for themselves.”
At 360Learning, we’re all about creating forums for people to express their learning needs - and to share their own skills and knowledge. That’s why we’re so delighted to hear practical examples of business leaders putting this strategy into action.
Many thanks to Jodi for taking the time to share her insights and experience with us!
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