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Understanding the roadblocks to advancing women leaders (Part 1)

August 28, 2014

A recent study by The Center for American Progress has found that businesses in the U.S. will not reach gender parity in senior leadership roles until 2085. That’s over 70 years! And since I’m not only a passionate champion for the advancement of women, but also the Director of Linkage’s Women in Leadership Institute™, I side with Gloria Steinem who said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

At Linkage, we thrive on helping our clients find new ways to attract, retain, develop, and advance their women leaders, and we’ve spent countless hours researching the top derailers organizations face when it comes to advancing women leaders. We’ve found the barriers to advancing women boil down to three things:

  1. Some female leaders simply do not aspire to advance.
  2. Many lack the skills and experience needed to advance.
  3. Most encounter societal and/or organizational barriers (structures, policies, cultures, etc.) that overtly and covertly prevent advancement.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can share a trend that I’ve seen emerge among several of my female Gen Y friends. One friend for example works for a global Fortune 1000 organization. She’s knowledgeable, competent, and has great leadership potential. She’s been told by her boss that “the organization is grooming her for her boss’s position.” But there’s one big problem—she doesn’t want her boss’s job!

Her story is one of many that share the same message: there can be a distinct disconnect between what organizations want for careers of their women leaders and what individual women want. What’s worse is that some leaders are making plans about who will lead their organizations into the future without stopping to actually ask “What do you want?” or “Where do you see yourself in X years?”

Why doesn’t she want her boss’s job? Perhaps it’s because she’s seen the sacrifice that level of leadership takes and she doesn’t feel it’s worth it. Or perhaps it’s because more people (male and female) are choosing to lead lives that fulfill their goals and utilize their unique strengths instead of just climbing the corporate ladder because they “should.”

Avoiding these situations is critical to both women leaders and organizations. Women leaders need to get clear about what they want, honest about what they don’t want, and speak up. And just as importantly, managers need to take the time to ask the important questions and understand what their people really want.

It seems simple to do and yet asking about career aspirations is not often a top priority on the list of a manager’s to-dos. It’s not enough to ask once per year at an employee’s annual performance review. Instead, it’s your responsibility as a manager to have an ongoing conversation with the leaders on your team about what they want and how you can support them to achieve their professional goals.

The key to all of this of course is trust. Do the people on your team trust you enough to tell you the truth? There is an underlying fear that by saying, “I don’t want that top position or even the next level up,” leaders will not be able to continue growing and learning in their current roles and/or move laterally. When I asked my friend, “Why don’t you talk with your boss about wanting to stay in an individual contributor role?” She responded, “I don’t want to limit myself the opportunity to develop and grow.” She chose to stay quiet for fear of being forgotten. I don’t blame her.

While I believe in advancing women leaders, I also believe that what’s best for organizations and the women who make up those organizations is to have every leader engaged in the work they do and the organizations they represent regardless of how high they aim. The goal is not to have everyone at the top. The goal is to have every leader in the right place.

What’s holding you back in your career and how are you overcoming it? Share your insights with us below.




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Advancing Women Leaders Academy

A 9-module, on-site learning experience that seeks to equip women with actionable steps and practices to address the barriers that impede their advancement in the workplace, including the Inner Critic.

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