Diversity and inclusion is a hot topic on corporate agendas these days, but despite the best efforts of employers, a large group of women are feeling left out. The primary focus is on diversity of race and gender, and employers do well celebrating the fact that we are all equal and unique. But when it comes to leadership training, employers are still pressuring women to conform to one profile of an ambitious and successful woman that is outdated and contrary to the future of work.
In the last decade, I’ve coached thousands of women who feel like they’re letting down the “power sisterhood” if they don’t do their part to break the glass ceiling. These women in the “everyday sisterhood” are still smart, capable and ambitious—but they want alternate routes to “grow in place” while family pressures are high. For these women, up is not the only way forward. To prevent women from taking costly caregiving breaks, and to retain great talent, employers need a different kind of CEO — chief empowerment officers who make room for many brands of ambition and success.
What Women Want
The reality is that women do not comprise a homogeneous group. It is inaccurate to say that all women are killing themselves to achieve top jobs. One woman, a Wharton alumna with a master of business administration, summed it up when she said, “My ideal is earning a good income in a flexible job, working with bright people and having the chance to do something interesting. I’ve never been shooting for the top jobs … just responsibility that has strategic core importance. I’ve never needed to run the company.”
At a recent keynote presentation to 100 women at a major corporation, only one woman raised her hand when I asked them how many were aspiring to senior executive roles. In a survey of 200 women before another corporate presentation, only 17% said they had these aspirations, and 33% said they were seriously considering a work hiatus.
When women do leave the workforce (43% of women take a career break to care for children or aging parents at some point, according to Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”), they forfeit up to four times their salaries each year they are out. Departures have big recruiting and training costs for employers as well, and they result in less diversity.
Women leave because they feel overwhelmed and unable to fit work into their family responsibilities. But they also leave because they feel on the fringes of the “in crowd” — the women who are visibly pushing for more and more responsibility, vocal about women’s responsibility to help each other reach the top, and willing to work long hours and travel the globe.
Alternate Measures of Success
Ironically, women are holding other women to monolithic standards of ambition and success. Many internal and external women’s organizations pride themselves on their programs, designed to hoist more women to the top. Few of these organizations give women substantial guidance on anything other than the traditional corporate path or help women find the flexible work they need to stay in the workforce during heavy caregiving periods. There are also few visible role models for alternative choices — women who want to forego the responsibilities of top corporate jobs for more personal, and less lofty, measures of success.
Organizations around the world spend around $3.4 billion on leadership training each year, but they spend a small percentage of that money on helping women deal with real-life family issues that impact productive and sustainable work. Only half of employers even have training that’s specifically directed to women. Funding for internal women’s networking groups (often a forum for valuable work and life discussions) is usually not a priority budget item. For instance, a major corporation asked me to speak and told me that the internal women’s group did not even have the budget to provide refreshments at the meeting. Another head of human resources (HR) told me that the average corporate budget for all employee resource groups (ERGs) is just $29,000. From all vantage points, women receive few assurances that ambition and success can play out in many different ways.
The Scarlet L
The fact is, though, that even many of the women who do drive toward and reach the pinnacles of success eventually reach a breaking point. Here’s a story I hear versions of over and over again: One of my coaching clients, a 41-year-old woman, has two degrees from an Ivy League school and is a managing director at a major financial services firm. She’s also the mother of two young children. On one of her frequent business trips abroad, she said to herself, “I don’t want this anymore. I never see my kids. I don’t need this job to validate my self-worth or prove to others I’m ambitious and successful.” Knowing that her employer offers only low-voltage flexible roles, she’s now thinking about creating her own consulting practice.
Here’s the kicker: Despite what she said to herself, she still fears leaving the fast track and becoming a “lightweight” in the eyes of her peers.
That lightweight judgment feels like a “scarlet L” that many women can’t shake. Sometimes, it’s easier to leave the workforce and say you’re taking a couple of years to catch up with your kids. Check out the credentials of the women at your local parent-teacher association; it probably reads like a “Who’s Who” of women with prestigious degrees and resumes with great job titles. These women say they’ll only leave the workforce for a couple of years, but in my experience, they stay out an average of 12. They don’t want to return to the inflexible grind they left behind — and they don’t want to have their ambition questioned by the hard-driving women who never left.
Diversity of Ambition
Employers need to convey the message that not all women are expected to aim for the C-suite and give them guidance on alternate paths to success. Women can be respected professionals who contribute to a team’s success, enjoy a competitive salary, receive good benefits and have a reasonable schedule that blends with family. Any professional path that leads to financial security can be a good, worthy and fulfilling journey for both employers and employees.
Embracing diversity of ambition calls for personalized coaching as women move through caregiving stages. The women who do want to rise to the highest levels should have the support and the path to do so, but there should also be guidance and empowerment for the women who want to work in a more flexible way — for a period or forever — and grow and prosper in place. Employers will lose far fewer women as valuable contributors when they make simple but powerful changes and give them opportunities to, for example:
Define leadership beyond titles, and recognize that leaders at any level lead project teams, set high standards for work quality, mentor others, challenge the status quo and find efficient ways to solve problems.
Broaden rigid and confining job descriptions, and focus instead on an expanding portfolio of skills and expertise — especially key “future of work” skills like quality control, management of financial resources and negotiation.
Collaborate with various departments through multi-disciplinary projects that cultivate new skills.
Take the lead on training and mentoring to help younger colleagues navigate work and life.
Gain exposure through networking or industry associations, speaking at conferences, writing articles or papers, and other opportunities.
Solidify global or community citizenship through participation in organizations that align with the company’s mission.
In the decades to come, when chief empowerment officers — managers of all functions — measure ambition and success beyond seniority of title, workplaces will be more welcoming and inclusive for women who are nurturing two huge jobs — family and career.