Debunking Assertiveness, Part II: 5 Ways to Get More Women in Leadership

It’s clear we’ve moved beyond the days of telling women they should “be more assertive” as explained in my last post, Debunking Assertiveness: Real Reasons There Aren’t More Women in Leadership, Part I.

However, there are some barriers to getting more women on leadership teams and on boards. They include 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.

The following are five meaningful actions for companies and women to finally make real progress.

1. Goals, rewards and consequences:

Having more women in leadership begets more women in leadership. Women need to look up and see role models, and teams will adapt to diversity once they actually have a team that’s diverse. In other words, don’t settle for empty goals and diversity training. Make it happen. Set a goal with a realistic percentage for your company and industry — somewhere between 25% and 50% women on your leadership teams in the next three to five years — and immediately promote, move or hire women into a few key positions.

To make these initial moves stick and encourage sustained change, tangibly and visibly reward those who achieve results just like any other goal that shows up in business and individual performance plans. That might be ratings, raises, bonuses, public recognition or budgetary allotments. Conversely, have equal consequences for not meeting those goals. Consider phasing in such consequences the first year — give leaders the chance to have a role in transforming culture with the “carrot” of improved business results, culture and rewards.

2. Talk to women and develop them:

Begin and keep up an ongoing dialogue with women throughout your company about leadership. Ask questions about their experiences, desires and perceived barriers. Ideally this happens in the context of development and performance discussions, but it needs to be a safe conversation. Depending on your culture, you may want to engage objective sources like HR or recruiting to conduct conversations. I’m not a huge fan of anonymous surveys. If you feel that’s a better option, be sure to follow up with real conversations.

Second, make sure every woman in your company has a solid development plan. This is the manager’s and the employee’s responsibility, with the same concept of rewards or consequences if not completed. That starts with self-exploration on the employee’s part (see earlier blog posts Knowing Yourself First I, II and III for ideas), a conversation about the goals and measurable actions.

Finally, go back to your talent identification process and make sure you have a pipeline of women to fill leadership roles. If not, at least you understand your gaps and can address them.

3. Remove barriers:

Talking to women should have revealed some barriers. I referenced several well-documented barriers in my last post. Set the goals, but be mindful and willing to accept diverse ways of working to accommodate those with multiple priorities, like children and spouses who also work.

4. Enlist champions

If we set aggressive goals for growing and placing more women into leadership, we can’t depend on passive support programs like mentors. Women need champions to help overcome the very real internal barriers they have.

Think of mentors as advising. Champions advocate. They urge someone to apply when they see a challenging role — very important, as you may recall in my last post, most women will only apply for a job if they perceive they have 80% or more mastery of the qualifications.

Champions publicize potential and get her networked in leadership circles. They give her or suggest meaningful development opportunities. The most senior members of the company need to champion women, which means spending time getting to know key women in their organizations.

5. For you, who wants to advance:

A company can do all the things above, but it takes as much effort and communication from you throughout your career. Specifically:

  • A clear understanding of yourself (Knowing Yourself First I, II and III).
  • A solid development plan with stretch goals.
  • Knowledge of where are the opportunities.
  • Internal and external network of supporters.
  • Regular, two-way communication about your desires and goals, open positions and available informal “stretch” opportunities.

If competing demands of children, family and career leave you stretched too thin, give your employer the benefit of the doubt. Always express your wish to advance while being open about your concerns with balance. If you have the skills and capabilities desirable for leadership, I found most leaders understand needs for flexibility. The challenge, I’ll admit, is maintaining boundaries within that flexibility.

I’ll close with a quote from Entrepreneur Magazine“Why We Need More Women in the Boardroom,” by Richard Branson, which makes the business case for change pretty clear.

“Seventy percent of household purchasing decisions are made by women, according to the Boston Consulting Group. Those decisions are not just about grocery lists or kids’ clothes — women also choose big ticket items such as cars and vacations. So, if 50 percent of the staff at a company is female, and women drive 70 percent of the buying decisions for its products, what possible rationale can senior management have for leaving women out of the corporate decision-making process?”

Women, what barriers have you overcome? What actions in companies have been successful to place more female executives?

  1. Christine,
    I see why you listed the first item first – without accountability, most organizations will make little progress. Combining the first two, i.e. rewarding leaders who actively develop women (and all talent for that matter) can be a powerful combination. Keep up the dialogue!


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