Debunking Assertiveness: Real Reasons There Aren’t More Executive Women, Part I

Attend most leadership conferences or read any book geared toward women, you’ll probably hear someone telling women they should be more assertive.

I’ve been in professional roles since the early ’90s, and it irritated me back then. To hear that in 2012 is infuriating.

Even worse, in our most respected business periodicals, we’re still telling women they need to dress well, speak well, play golf, do work others refuse to do, don’t cry at work and many other patronizing recommendations.

Why the repeated reaching back to the ’70s when it comes to leadership advice for women? I don’t know, but it sure got me thinking about what are some valid barriers for women. These same reasons apply to retaining women as well.

Homogeneous culture at the top

May I be so bold to suggest we change this conversation entirely? Instead of focusing on what women should do or fitting some existing mold, could we instead focus on accepting a variety of leadership styles and approaches to work on the teams, in the jobs and on the boards where wish to attract more women? It’s an old concept you’ve heard a million times: diverse teams! We all know it’s more comfortable to work with people most like ourselves. We also know we don’t achieve competitive advantage when we’re comfortable and all thinking the same.

Lack of role models

This is going to sound painfully obvious, but it’s possible there aren’t more women on boards and in executive ranks because there aren’t many women in those roles. There are no role models for women, no one for them to look up at and say, “Hey, that’s me, I can do that.” Maybe they look up and see all men whose spouses or partners stay at home which enables the freedom to work 24×7 (I fully applaud women and men who stay at home, as I left a management role to do just that). Or, maybe they look up and see a woman, but her husband stays home, or she doesn’t have children, or she’s single. You say, “Well, that won’t work for me, my husband has a career and we have little kids.” Maybe they see a contradiction: well-publicized “work/life balance” policy, but few women actually having any balance.

Speaking of that, can a woman with kids and a husband who works be an executive? Does she have to work the same long hours, do the same travel, play golf, be on boards? Talk about football games? Send emails at 3 a.m.? I know customers are demanding more diversity from their vendors. Would they tolerate a female CEO who needs to take a call later because she’s at her kid’s soccer game? Isn’t there someone else the customer could talk to? Or, does she have to miss the soccer game, and have a live-in nanny?

I’m inclined to say, no, executive roles cannot accommodate such flexibility. Wannabe executive women, you need to make a choice. But, I want to be hopeful for the future. I want to think we really mean to have more women executives and can accommodate, well, life. So yes, we can accommodate that flexibility. Tell those women to attend the soccer games.

The Institute of Leadership and Management’s report Ambition and Gender at Work puts it more bluntly. “To stop talented women opting out of leadership careers, we need to get away from the male breadwinner career model and make senior leadership roles more appealing to people with family demands. Career advancement should reflect skills and capabilities, with less emphasis on time served. Flexible working, job and career sharing and work-life balance policies have an important part to play.”

Questionable media coverage

An aspiring woman may look to the business periodicals and become discouraged by what happens to women like Hewlitt-Packard’s former CEO Carly Fiorina or see the petty high school gossip coverage of Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer. Yuck. Who wants that? Yes, many held Fiorina responsible for a 50% drop of HP’s stock during her tenure but did it call for the amount of media coverage? How many other Dow 30 companies have done as poorly, did we cover them in the same way? features an annual list of executive women, recently titled, “Fortune’s Most Powerful Women: Meet the Queen Bees.” Queen Bees??? Sigh. Finally, there are the ridiculous articles I referenced earlier.

Lack of accountability

The next barrier for women desiring to advance is the painful path to getting there. Companies have endless ways to track women, identify “high potential” women, require women from the applicant pool be interviewed and set targets for women.

Yet, for all the increased internal activity, according to Catalyst, these efforts aren’t yielding a material number more women executives. In fact, progress has stalled or even declined in recent years. It would be convenient to blame the economy, but I don’t think that’s correct, or helpful. It doesn’t explain why, according to the Ambition and Gender at Work report, “Although women make up roughly half of the workforce, far fewer women than men reach senior management and leadership positions. While the business case for gender diversity at all levels is compelling, progress has been glacial.”

Why? Partially because there are no consequences to senior leaders for not developing and promoting more women into management. Companies are not punitive in this regard because, I hate to say it, it’s not really a priority.

Restrictive recruiting and selection processes

Additionally, while it’s a step ahead for selection processes to have become so legally compliant and directive to reduce discrimination, they’ve made it impossible to move proven talent around via informal roles. Every job has to be posted. When you consider the next reason, it makes our recruiting and selection processes even more a barrier.

I’m not qualified

Finally, there’s human nature. There are many studies that show perceived confidence differences between men and women when applying for jobs. For example, men may apply for a job or “put their name in the hat” when they feel they meet at least 20% of the job’s qualifications. Conversely, women will only apply when the feel they meet at least 80% of its qualifications. Jenna Goudreau from Forbes cleverly stated, “Women round down and men round up.” And so we’re missing out on a lot of women for most jobs!

Being 20% qualified is perhaps EXACTLY when women should apply. It means you’ll be stretched, grow and advance your skills more quickly, which is exactly what all aspiring executives do. It also shows superiors and hiring managers you want to grow and will take risks.

It’s hopefully clear to you now we that we’re long past “be more assertive.” That’s not to say there aren’t real barriers for women: homogenous culture at the top, lack of role models, no consequences for unmet goals, inflexible recruiting and selection processes and perceived lack of qualifications for open jobs.

To close, does it really matter why more women aren’t in executive positions? Not unless you’re going to do something about it.

Stop back next week for Part II!

  1. Christine,
    As you know this is a hot button for me as well. I, too, get tired of hearing the lame advice given to women to advance, when the reality is there is a significant communication and style gap. I realize stereotypes are dangerous, but women tend to give credit to others in their language where men tend to take credit themselves (“We accomplished…” vs. “I”, even when the contribution was identical). And then there’s the infamous tightrope women walk between being assertive enough to be seen as leadership material without crossing the line to being “witchy”. We have only downside if we don’t get that balance just right, while men have only upside if they can add soft skills to the expected assertiveness. I believe these communication differences, coupled with your point that leaders aren’t held accountable enough to promote women, are the two biggest reasons there aren’t more women executives. Add to these the women who just opt out of a race stacked against them and who want work/life balance, and it’s no wonder that nearly 40 years after the beginning of the women’s liberation movement we’re not much further along.

    Would be interested in your readers’ views on how to change things.


    1. Well put. There were probably five or six other things you could include that are barriers, not the least of which is the bias you mention.


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