It will still be 170 years until women achieve economic parity on a global scale, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report.
It’s a sobering statistic as we celebrate International Women’s Day today. In many ways, recent events show clear progress toward parity. Last year, the theme of International Women’s Day was #PledgeForParity, and businesses and world leaders took notice. In the U.K., the top financial institutions signed a charter pledging gender balance. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, launched a campaign to raise the profile of women in the upper reaches of public and corporate life. And on Women’s Equality Day (August 26), then-President Obama announced that 29 major U.S. employers took the White House Equal Pay Pledge. Companies included large tech firms (including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Dropbox and LinkedIn), as well as companies like Anheuser-Busch, Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola, General Motors and Nike.
Despite such incredible progress, there’s no doubt that the glass ceiling is still intact. According to a study by Catalyst, women comprise 53 percent of entry-level workers, but at each level of leadership, there are fewer and fewer women. Women make up only 40 percent of managers, 35 percent of directors and 19 percent of C-suite members. And the portion of women CEOs in the Fortune 500 is only about 5 percent and has hovered around that number for several years.
At the same time, the business case for women in leadership has never been stronger. DDI’s 2015 Global Leadership Forecast found that companies whose leadership is at least 30 percent women are 12 times more likely to be in the top 20 percent of financial performers. In the same study, however, women cited a lack of opportunities to lead teams and gain global leadership experience as a significant factor holding them back.
Here are four lessons that can help women ignite their impact in the workplace and put themselves on the path to leadership:
1. Think of confidence as a key leadership skill.
Many people point to the gender gap in leadership as a product of a skills gap. For instance, they often assume that men are better at skills such as negotiating or delegating, while they associate women with skills such as communication and planning. In DDI’s assessments of thousands of leaders, however, it is clear that there is no significant skills gap between men and women leaders, save one: confidence. While there is no evidence that men actually outperform women as leaders, they consistently rate themselves as more effective leaders than their peers. Furthermore, the confidence gap between men and women grows larger as men and women advance to higher levels of leadership.
A lack of confidence can have long-lasting consequences. While men put themselves forward for new challenges, jobs and projects, women may hold back, waiting to be recognized for their hard work. Instead, women need to begin thinking about building their confidence in the same way they focus on building other key leadership skills. In many cases, participating in formal leadership development programs helps to give women confidence that they have the skills to lead.
2. Fail forward.
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Tara Sophia Mohr (author and creator of the Playing Big Facilitators Training Program) examined the reasons why men and women chose not to apply for jobs for which they were not 100-percent qualified. For both sexes, the top reason was that applicants didn’t want to waste their time if they probably weren’t going to get the job. But notably, the second most common response for women was that they didn’t want to put themselves out there if they were likely to fail.
Failure plays an important role in innovation and leads to real breakthroughs. It’s not about failure; it’s about learning. Women cannot be afraid to fail but should focus on “failing forward.” The key to “failing forward” is seeking and accepting feedback from failures to ensure that they turn into positive lessons to guide future success.
3. Declare yourself early and often.
In her study, Mohr also uncovered that 15 percent of women did not apply for jobs for which they didn’t check off every qualification because they were simply following the guidelines about who should apply. As conscientious rule followers, women often miss the point that merely following the rules is not enough to win the day. While many women wait for opportunities to come to them as a reward for their hard work, men are more likely to position themselves for higher leadership positions.
While everyone needs to declare their readiness for the next step, women often miss the cues about when and how often to remind people of what they can do now and what they want to do in the future. For women, this declarative conversation carries real weight. While they may be struggling to keep their head above water, women need to periodically step away from the fray and declare their readiness as a future leader.
4. Rethink mentorship.
Finding a good mentor is like winning the lottery. Mentors can help women build their network, improve their leadership skills and find new opportunities. But according to the study “Women as Mentors: Does She or Doesn’t She?”, 63 percent of women have never had a mentor. Unfortunately, many women also responded they were too afraid to ask. For example, one female executive said, “It’s like walking up to someone and asking them to be your friend, and no one does that.” Overwhelmingly, however, women leaders reported that they would mentor more if they were only asked.
One way to build more mentorship relationships is to look for micromentors, who give feedback about specific projects or stretch assignments. Micromentors are less about guiding your overall career and more about finding an expert who can help you now. Don’t limit yourself to just women; male mentors also play an important role. Focusing on building a network of micromentors gives you a great excuse to expand your network without feeling like you’re asking someone to “go steady” with you forever.
Because of the small number of women in top leadership positions, it often seems that women are under the microscope. To avoid such intense scrutiny, many women feel that they must be so prepared for the job that it will be impossible to fail. But the ultimate result is that they wait too long to put themselves forward for leadership. Instead, women must have the confidence that they will be able to learn on the job. Admittedly, learning on the job takes courage, but the risks are worth it.