Cultivating Women Business Leaders: Successes and Challenges

Women make up almost half of the national workforce. So, with more women in the workplace than ever before, what does this mean for corporate culture and the nature of work? While women have benefited from advances in the workplace in general, companies can (and should) do a better job cultivating and promoting women business leaders.

Some of the blockers for women at the top of the corporate ladder include an uneven culture shift, unrealistic expectations, and lack of work-life balance. However, there are several steps forward-thinking organizations can take to create a more balanced (and successful) leadership team.

Despite Gains, More Women Business Leaders are Needed

Time for a reality check. While we should be thrilled about trend lines overall, there are scant few women heading large companies and who have jobs at the top. A record number of women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, but they still comprise less than 10 percent of the overall total.

Few as they are, they’re doing fine at the top, thank you very much. During recent economic storms, female leaders proved they can be as tough, decisive, and competitive as men. For example, during the volatile economic climate of 2018, General Motor’s CEO Mary Barra led a turnaround that resulted in higher-than-expected earnings for the company.

Therefore, any notion that women can’t be as effective in the C-suite as their male counterparts should be put to rest. So, why are executives still overwhelmingly male?

The Culture Shift Has Been Sluggish

So, yes, women can keep investors happy, but what about everybody else at the company? Does an increase in women business leaders translate to relationship building over backstabbing? Has it triggered new corporate policies that favor work-life balance over the 24/7 grind? Have women brought in other women, so that the exceptionally talented women are pouring into management positions?

Despite our hopes, the gender redistribution of our workforce and the small swell in female CEOs has not created a much-needed seismic culture shift throughout most organizations. The fantasy is much different than the day-to-day reality of managing a company, especially a super-sized one. Here are some reasons why this shift hasn’t been as swift as many would have hoped:

1. Competing Priorities

For one thing, many companies are barely weathering the storm. Whether leaders are struggling to turn a company around, keep shareholders happy, beat the competition, or all of the above, they’re busy making a lot of hard choices. There is little time to radically change their corporate cultures while putting out so many fires.

2. Gender Stereotypes

Many women don’t want to be seen as “soft,” and others simply aren’t. For example, no one would call Carly Fiorina, the head of Hewlett Packard from 1999 to 2005, a wilting lily. According to her memoir, Tough Choices, she was sometimes referred to as Chainsaw Carly. This means undue pressure is often put on women business leaders to overcorrect for unfair gender stereotypes instead of simply being themselves.

3. Lack of Succession Pipelines

Another problem is that we haven’t seen much of a succession pipeline for women streaming into upper management positions. When Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy handed the reins to Ursula Burns, the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company, the move made headlines.

Unfortunately, that is still rare. Women continue to make less than men and are clustered in the lowest salaried jobs. Overall, they are also more likely than their male counterparts to be employed in lower paying industries like education and healthcare. The hope is that, eventually, women in leadership positions can help expand senior-level opportunities for other women.

Potential Drawbacks for Women Business Leaders

Now that there are more women in the workplace, including positions of leadership, we can feel hopeful. But it’s important to manage our expectations. While some women leaders may work to redefine their roles, usher in a more authentic and transparent leadership style, and emphasize work-life balance, changing entrenched corporate culture is not easy.

Additionally, women face many of the same risks traditionally associated with the male workforce. With layoffs and restructuring, there are fewer people with more responsibilities. Plus, they’re working longer hours in an already supercharged, high-tech, global, 24/7 environment—and more and more of them are women.

We have to be careful. What are the consequences for women as they careen back and forth between the personal and professional? Studies show that women at every level are dealing with exceptional levels of stress, often leaving the office and working a “second shift” at home, caring for spouses and children (if they have them), doing the lion’s share of the housework, and looking after elderly relatives.

The downsides to women’s new workforce power are: Stress, pressure, exhaustion, burn out, and heart attacks—exactly what used to kill hard-driving corporate men (and often still does).

How to Cultivate Women Business Leaders

Even as we celebrate workplace gains for women, there is still a lot of work to be done. Three key areas of focus that can help increase women’s participation in senior management include:

  1. Transparency and trust. This helps women know where they stand, what it takes to succeed, and how to better advocate for themselves.
  2. Support networks and advocacy. Mentors and role models can have a huge effect on ensuring women succeed in the workplace.
  3. Work-life balance. Leaders who prioritize a healthy work-life balance through things like better maternity and paternity leave, re-entry programs, and flexible scheduling help to prevent bias and promote workplace well-being.

Allowing the gains already achieved to serve as hope for the future, women and men alike can make significant progress toward a more equitable, balanced, and ultimately fulfilling workplace. In fact, those businesses that fail to make adjustments toward a more equitable workplace (up to and including senior management) will not be as successful.

Recruit Tomorrow’s Women Business Leaders Today

It’s great to think about the big changes that need to occur in the name of equality. But on a day-to-day basis, we can make smaller, yet significant decisions to advance the cause. For recruiters, this means fighting against gender bias in the hiring process and being aware of hidden bias that may push away highly qualified women. Sign up to receive expert insights into recruiting practices and management today.