By Ray B. Williams with Lisa Martin

Call it a glass ceiling, glass wall or a glass floor - there is still a barrier blocking senior women leaders in organizations. High-powered executive and professional women are increasingly opting out of, being bypassed, or otherwise disappearing from the highly professional workforce. While this exists, true diversity in organizations will not happen.

In a study by Manuela Barreto and her colleagues for the American Psychological Association in 2009, they concluded that while women have made progress, it has been incremental. A recent report by the Center for Work-Life Policy and the Concours Group notes that unless we are prepared to incorporate our talented, educated women into the leadership structure in greater numbers, we risk facing a serious drop in the quality of our professional workforce.

Pamela Stone's in Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett in Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, argue that women are forced out of their careers by inhospitable workplaces, dominated by the masculine competitive model of organizations. They suggest this model may be at the root of preventing real diversity in the workplace from advancing.

Are they accurate or overstating their case? Let's take a look at some data.

Hermina Ibarra and Morten Hansen in the December 21, 2009 Harvard Business Review, studied the leadership of the 2,000 of the world's top performing companies, they found only 29 (1.5%) of those CEOs were women, an even smaller percentage than on the Fortune 500 Global list (2.5%). Only one woman, Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, made it to their top 100 CEOs list. In the U.S., women comprise 57% of all college students but only 26% of full professors and only 14% of University presidents. Despite being nearly 50% of law school graduates, women make up only 18% of law partners and only 25% of judges. Only 9.4% of jobs of Vice-President or higher are occupied by women according to a study completed by Catalyst Corporation.

What about the performance of women who do rise to senior leadership positions?

There's evidence that female executives do more diligence than their male counterparts: A study by the Conference Board of Canada, found 72% of boards with 2 or more females conduct formal board performance evaluations, while 49% of all-male boards do. A study published by Harvard Business School found firms with female board members were more likely than companies with all-male boards to be leaders when ranked by revenue or profit. Research by Catalyst Corporation shows that Fortune 500 companies with the highest proportion of women in senior management significantly outperformed others with the lowest proportion in both return on equity and total shareholder return. Karen Lyness and Madeline Heilman reported in a study published in The Journal of Applied Psychology, that when women were promoted to upper-level management positions, they subsequently had higher performance ratings than men.

What are the reasons that women, despite solid performance records, have been unable to take an equal place with men in senior leadership positions?

One of the reasons is occupational segregation. Men tend to be highly concentrated in the top professions, such as supervisors, managers, executives, production supervisors. Women tend to be over-represented in the status lowest paid professions in the work force such as teachers, secretaries, nurses and childcare providers. Women are also concentrated in the lower-ranked and lower-paid occupations within a given profession.

Part of the problem is still how women are portrayed in popular media, says Sue Paish, CEO of Pharmasave Canada and Chairperson of the Vancouver Board of Trade. On the one hand we want and expect women to take an equal leadership role to men, yet in popular media women are still portrayed as subservient and objectified, which has a significant impact on young people. Another social expectation problem is related to our view of families. Matt Bosrock, Deputy CEO of HSBC Bank of Canada and Sue Paish say that there is still a societal expectation that women should be taking care of their families at home while simultaneously pursuing their careers, an expectation not shared for men.

A major part of the problem lies in leadership stereotypes. It is still a predominant view that good male leaders are "tough and shrewd,"--desirable traits to many. Women's leadership traits are viewed as nurturing and caring, viewed by many as "weak and soft." Bosrock says that in the past 20 years there has been a shift from a directive, authoritarian style of leadership to a more collaborative style, but when you look at the situation across many industries, people (mostly men) who are rising to the top are very directive and authoritarian. He says we have to let go of the notion there is only one way to lead.

So what is the solution to this problem?

Some experts, like Harvard's Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Robin Ely, argue that a critical mass of women in senior leadership and on boards is required, and not at entry-level and mid-level positions. A recent study of corporate boards by the Wellesley Center for Women found that to have a critical mass of three or more women could cause fundamental change in the boardroom and enhance corporate governance. In 2002, Norway passed legislation, instructing publicly traded companies to have at least 40% female board members by mid-2005. Paish cites the initiatives of the B.C. Provincial Government in structuring substantial female participation in the boards of directors in Crown Corporations.

Another solution is to see gender equity as a part of larger need for diversity in the workplace including senior leadership. Bosrock, Paish and Tamara Vrooman, CEO of Vancity Credit Union--the largest in Canada--believe there is a compelling case for diversity in the workplace of all kinds, not just gender, which will bring about healthy diverse perspectives and believe that diversity initiative must come from the top--from the CEO.

Leaders must see diversity is a business imperative, not just a matter of compliance or an add-on program, and be willing to take a bold approach. Bosrock believes courageous leadership on the part of the CEO, senior people and board members to create an inclusive culture of different leadership styles, different ways of communicating and different ways of interacting, will empower the whole talent pool.

Stereotyping is cognitive shortcut people are often unaware impacts their perceptions of others. People need to understand their blind spots so they don't repeat behaviors that reinforce negative biases. Coaching is required to support individual's to know themselves and their colleagues better and reinforce positive behavior changes and people management practices that eliminate biases.

And what of the responsibility of women? Paish, argues that women wanting to become senior leaders need to know how to integrate into a leadership team. Both Paish and Vrooman, say that women aspiring to senior leadership positions need to demonstrate their value and abilities to the organization, and not have a sense of entitlement.

In conclusion, it's apparent that glass barriers are still there for senior leadership in organizations, and the solutions are to embrace the concept of diversity, redefine our leadership model in organizations, reexamine the popular media views and biases of women and men, and have women bring value to and integrate into leadership structures.

Ray B. Williams is Co-Founder of Success IQ University and Ray Williams Associates, companies located in Phoenix and Vancouver, providing leadership training, personal growth and executive coaching services. Lisa Martin is the best-selling author of Briefcase
Moms: 10 Proven Practices to Balance,

You are reading

Wired for Success

The Biggest Contributor to Income Inequality

Income inequality is getting worse in the U.S. under laissez-faire capitalism.

The Cancerous Incivility of Social Media

Cyberbullying, harassment, and trolling are increasing.

Is America Now a Militaristic State?

How growing U.S. militarism threatens economic and social stability.