If you have a program for women in your organization, it’s worthwhile to check if such learning is resulting in more women rising to leadership positions or, at the least, more of them vying for leadership positions. In the higher levels of leadership, women’s numbers seem to be dwindling, despite greater efforts, rising voices and millions of dollars invested in gender equity and women’s leadership programs.
Leaning in alone isn’t cutting it either, regardless of the passion and persuasion with which Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, first introduced us to that concept. In fact, last year, there were fewer female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. than there were even a few years previously. We aren’t progressing; we are actually falling further behind in both promoting women into leadership roles and instilling confidence in young women about their leadership future.
Here’s the clincher: Women’s ability to lead competently is the least of our problems. Research shows that we can’t say with any amount of confidence that men and women lead differently or that one gender is more given to leadership than the other. Both can learn to lead on the job or come better prepared for such positions through foundational leadership skills programs.
So, what should we teach women in leadership development programs, other than leadership skills alone? Here are three suggestions to reboot your efforts and bring women closer to the opportunities they aspire to.
Learning to Seek Male Mentors
Let’s teach our female professionals, especially those in middle management, to actively seek male mentors when men dominate the leadership and decision-making roles above them. We still skirt this issue in conversations with women. Perhaps we think it’s better to wait to be offered such mentorship. In the bargain, many women don’t learn to advocate for themselves; rather, they fall into a fruitless “wait-and-watch” approach.
Seeking a mentor doesn’t have to turn into a pesky and relentless chase of a senior leader. We can surely trust women in middle management to exercise their innate wisdom, experience and cultural awareness of the organization in such matters. What they need is encouragement to promote themselves and ask for the support they need. There’s nothing wrong with taking the initiative. (Ask men; they do it all the time!)
Learning to Accept Temporary Discomfort
Women often report feelings of anxiety when a senior role comes with the discomfort and uncertainty of travel or a brighter spotlight. This fear has little to do with competence and more to do with how women can often be penalized for the same behaviors that are encouraged and rewarded in men. Women don’t have less ambition, intelligence or ability than men, but they are often made to feel badly about career choices that can be at odds with accepted (and often unfair) social and gender norms.
Include this uncomfortable conversation in your next leadership development program. Create an open discussion about the worry women feel regarding stepping into demanding roles. Tell them that the discomfort is temporary and that a senior role comes with more influence and access to negotiate for what they need. Unless we risk discomfort for a little while, we might find it hard to reach further up on our terms, which are often fair and reasonable to ask for.
Learning to Amplify Other Women
A lot of women’s leadership programs teach individual skills and how to advocate for themselves. While this focus is understandable, given the gender imbalance in most organizations, women also need to lift each other up. Plus, leadership is a team sport. For example, during the Obama administration, women in the higher echelons of the White House began to repeat each other’s ideas to bring attention to them, so their more powerful and vocal male colleagues wouldn’t drown them out. This approach, called amplification, proved to be a powerful yet unobtrusive technique to amplify each other and rise together. Amplification is a great concept to include in a leadership curriculum for female professionals, because a sense of community, partnership and empathy is important.
These tips are not to ignore or downplay the importance of the leadership skills that make up most programs. Instead, refresh the curriculum, and revitalize the importance of investing in such programs. Without coming face to face with issues that often don’t make it to structured programs, we might not be able to get to the heart of what makes such programs less effective than they could be.