Gender Gap: Breaking the Top Management Boundary

By Dana Goldblatt, DBA

In my first post, I made the case for gender parity in top management – to provide women with more business power and as a strategic imperative for business and the economy. Executive-level positions are the most junior of the three types of top management positions. They form the pipeline/talent pool for both board director and CEO positions and typically include Vice Presidents (VPs) up through members of senior management who are direct reports of the CEO (e.g., Executive and Senior Vice Presidents (SVPs), Presidents and positons with Chief in the title). The lack of women executives (only 29% of VPs, 21% of SVPs and 20% of the C-Suite)1 and the difficulty that women have in attaining executive-level positions is commonly referred to as the ‘glass ceiling.’2

Because of the myriad of purported causes for the glass ceiling, they are commonly divided into three categories: individual, organizational and societal. More importantly, the categories are useful for identifying accountabilities and actions to eliminate or at least mitigate the barriers and to address the problem holistically. Below are the best and promising actions found by studies that include my own doctoral research which was based on one-on-one interviews with female CEOs, board directors and executive search consultants. We’ll start with individual boundaries this week, and in the coming weeks we’ll look at organizational and societal boundaries.

Individual Boundaries

The career limiting or ending behaviors and decisions that we as women are said to exhibit and make are considered ‘individual’ boundaries. They are the focus of the majority of both popular and academic literature, think Lean Inby Sheryl Sandberg, which suggests they are believed to be the primary culprit:3

The double burden of work and family – Women provide the majority of household work and care for both children and the elderly, even when they are the primary breadwinner, which often conflicts with their career demands and puts them at a competitive disadvantage with men.4

  • Set your career and personal life objectives and then choose a profession, employer and spouse that will enable you to achieve them. Make sure to put in place additional support systems as needed (e.g., housekeeper, child care provider, accountant, investment advisor, etc.).
  • Research potential employers to find ones that are a good match to your objectives and goals (e.g., workplace culture, work model, pay and benefits, and women in top management).

“I had five or six different opportunities and part of the reason I chose this one is because I knew I could be successful and still have a family and still do all those other things…partially because of the company’s policies but partially just because of the culture.”(Female CEO)

“I have women friends whose husbands have subjugated their careers. My husband did it for me. I think that’s the teamwork, and people have to make those decisions as a team. And society needs to not look down on it.”(Female CEO)

Lack of qualifications and ambition – Women are said to have an insufficient breadth and depth of management experience in general and line (i.e., profit and loss) and international experience more specifically.Although there are studies to the contrary, women are also commonly considered to have personal traits that are not consistent with those needed for top management including risk aversion and a lack of confidence and ambition.As an engineer, you have already partially mitigated this barrier by attaining an undergraduate degree and technical knowledge and skills that are in high demand and common to those in top management.7

  • To further reduce this barrier, complete a gap analysis comparing your capabilities with the qualifications for top management and take steps to close them. That may include seeking cross-functional development opportunities and positions, completing an internal or external leadership development program, and attaining an MBA to increase your business knowledge particularly in areas like operations, finance and strategy.
  • Demonstrate the subjective leadership trait of ‘gravitas’ (i.e., serious, dignified and substantive) by talking powerfully, confidently and concisely and always dressing professionally. A female CEO told me that she believes casual dress is one of the worst things to happen to women in the workplace because there is not a professional dress code for women like there is for men.

“[Getting my MBA] signaled to people that I was serious about [getting promoted]. I was very serious about trying to understand and really progress.” (Female CEO with an MD)

Avoidance of networking and sponsorship – Women tend to rely on merit for career advancement while men also prioritize professional networks and sponsorships which are widely considered to be critical.8

  • Develop and maintain extensive networks and sponsors that include senior-level managers and executive search consultants, both men and women, and two internal and one external sponsor (‘2+1’) to minimize your risk. I can personally attest to the negative career effects of having your sole sponsor lose a power struggle or leave your organization.
  • Align with a high-potential supervisor who will support your work-life balance objectives, provide you with development opportunities and sponsor you for raises and promotions.
  • Proactively seek the advice, guidance and advocacy of your sponsors and reciprocate their support.
  • As you know from being in a male-dominated profession, we will never be considered ‘one of the guys.’ But, do take advantage of networking opportunities while also staying safe and feeling comfortable by meeting in public places and in groups that include other women and by trusting your gut instinct.

“Some of its fate, I believe, and some of its luck and some of it is skill and then a lot it’s networking. You’re only as good as your reputation on any level, whether it’s from an integrity perspective or from a skill set perspective. And, that’s what carries you, in my mind, through life.” (Female CEO)

Failure to request and successfully negotiate compensation and promotions – While there are conflicting findings on whether women are less likely than men to ask for and negotiate compensation and promotions and be rewarded for doing so, there does appear to be agreement that men are more likely to get what they want without having to ask or pay a “social penalty” when they do.But contrary to what you have heard and read in popular media, women should not ask and negotiate more like men.10 Because of what is called the “double-bind,” women are penalized for exhibiting male traits while men are rewarded for female ones (e.g., emotional intelligence).11

  • Prepare by:
    • Routinely responding to executive search consultants and contacting your professional network for information about your value in the marketplace (i.e., demand, base pay, additional pay and benefits).
    • Obtaining the support of your supervisor/manager and sponsor.
  • State that you want and are ready for a promotion even if you are not 100% qualified.
  • Ask for a specific compensation amount (proposing an amount is the important part, not the number) as well as any conditions you need to be successful.
  • Make the case based on why it is appropriate and sensical for both the organization and the decision maker instead of why you deserve it.

“Men respond quicker to the phone call. Men want to know what they are worth. They want to know ‘What are they paying for this job?’” (Executive Search Consultant)

Non-traditional career paths – Men have continuous and linear career paths in an industry while women tend to have career breaks and move into lateral positions and different industries (i.e., a career ‘labyrinth’ rather than a ladder).12 The consequences of career breaks for women are steep. A study found that only one-third (30%) of women wanting to return to work are able to find professional, full-time employment and they lose 18%-28% of their earning power for a break of 2 years or less and 37% for 3 or more years.13

  • Instead of resigning, take a leave of absence or “keep a sliver” through a reduced-hour or flexible position.
  • If you take a career break, try to minimize the length, maintain your professional network, and use it for “strategic repositioning” as men do (e.g., obtain additional training, switch careers or start a business).
  • Make career moves that are lateral or into other industries only if they help you achieve your career goals.
  • Do not hesitate to seek an external position if your progression is blocked or your opportunities are limited.

“I just shudder to think of what my life would be like if I hadn’t kept a sliver…Even if I hadn’t been [CEO], it changed the outcome of my life…” (Female CEO)

About Dana Goldblatt

Dr. Goldblatt is a speaker at WE18, the Annual Conference of the Society of Women Engineers, October 18-20, 2018 in Minneapolis, MN. She helps organizations achieve sustainable transformational change by setting and communicating strategic objectives, aligning organization structure, culture and talent with strategy and actively measuring and managing strategic performance. Prior to leading the Strategy Execution Group, she was V.P. of Research and Advisory Services at Palladium and a Principal in its Strategy Consulting practice. Dr. Goldblatt has assisted more than 75 private, public and social sector U.S. and international organizations in a wide variety of industries and has conducted research and published articles on best and leading practices in strategy, CEO successions and women in top management. She believes that gender parity is a strategic imperative and is committed to achieving it through education, advocacy and action.

1Rachel Thomas and others, Women in the Workplace, 2017.

2Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, A Solid Investment: Making Use of the Nation’s Human Capital, 1995.

3Deborah A. Neil, Margaret M. Hopkins, and Diana Bilimoria, ‘Patterns and Paradoxes in Women’s Careers’, in Conceptualizing  Women’s Working Lives: Moving the Boundaries of Discourse Series 5, ed. by Wendy A. Patton (Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2013), pp. 63–79.

4Thomas and others.

5Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee, Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work(New York, 2012).

Terrance W. Fitzsimmons, Victor J. Callan, and Neil Paulsen, ‘Gender Disparity in the c-Suite: Do Male and Female CEOs Differ in    How They Reached the Top?’, The Leadership Quarterly, 25.2 (2013), 245–66.

6Georges Desvaux and others, Women Matter: Time to Accelerate-Ten Years of Insights into Gender Diversity, 2017.

Grant Thornton, Women in Business: New Perspectives on Risk and Reward, 2017.

7Heidrick & Struggles, Route to the Top, 2017.

8Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career(Boston: Harvard Business School    Publication Corp., 2013).

9Sheryl Sandberg and N. Scovell, Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will to Lead(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).

Thomas and others.

10Tara S. Bernard, ‘A Toolkit for Women Seeking a Raise’, Forbes, 2010.

Thomas and others.

11Nancy Nichols, ‘Whatever Happended to Rosie the Riveter?’, Harvard Business Review, 60.July/August (1993), 14–16.

12Alice H. Eagly and Linda L Carli, ‘Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership’, Harvard Business Review, 85.9 (2007), 63–71.

13Nancy M. Carter and Christine Silva, ‘Women in Management: Delusions of Progress’, Harvard Business Review, 88.3 (2010), 19-21.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, ‘Off-Ramps and on-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success’, Harvard Business Review, 83.3 (2005), 43–6, 48, 50–4 passim.