By Traci Cox
Women in leadership roles have come a long way since the times of our Mothers and Grandmothers. While there is still inequality among men and women in the workforce, as well as pay disparity, we are continuing to break barriers and stereotypes year after year. For example, the percentage of women holding board seats in Fortune 500 companies has increased by 7% since 1995, from 10% to 17%. Yet, are there other reasons many of us are not in leadership roles? Is this inequality a result of corporate leadership, our culture, women themselves, or something else? Regardless of the cause, what can be done – both by organizations and individuals – to rectify this?
In most organizations, women constitute more than half of the headcount; however, female representation at the top of the hierarchy is drastically different. At the CEO level, worldwide, less than five percent are women. Why? Great question. In many instances, women are better in nearly all leadership competencies. In fact, a decade long study published by Harvard Business Review confirms that our female peers actually scored higher than men on 12 of 16 leadership competencies.
Most would concede that women would excel at certain competencies, including motivating others and teamwork, which we do; however, according to the study, the top competencies exhibited by women were taking initiative, displaying honesty and integrity, and driving for results. Typically thought to be male-dominated traits, compounding these competencies with our natural tendencies of fostering collaboration and employee and relationship development, demonstrates why WE have higher effectiveness in the workplace. The widely accepted belief that males are more skilled at taking initiative and driving for results, as well as assuming that women aren’t suitable or willing to take a leadership opportunity, tend to be major barriers for women. Needless to say, organizations should not be hesitant to promote women into leadership roles. Likewise, women should not be afraid to push themselves to rise to the top, if they so choose.
Which brings up a point as to whether women actually want these roles. While it is shown that they are more effective than men in leadership roles, inequality is not only due to organizations overlooking female talent. Women aren’t necessarily seeking these roles. In a poll conducted about women’s stance on professional drive by Real Simple and sister brand, TIME, almost 40% said enjoying their work was a top priority over money and security and significantly more important than having power and influence. Additionally, a 2012 McKinsey study shows that, in many cases, women feel the importance of work-family balance outweighs taking leadership opportunities in an organization. Until such time organizations understand women’s value, contributions, and effectiveness as leaders, and develop more flexibility in support of a more balanced focus, we will continue to see women leave qualified opportunities behind.
For women in existing management roles and those seeking higher leadership opportunities, it is important to understand the challenges they may face and the rewards that will help them remain confident. Transitioning to a manager during the early years of my career was one of my most difficult experiences, as I had to learn to wear many hats and acquiesce to varying personalities and expectations. Over the years, as my confidence grew, having an understanding of my strengths was a key factor in my progressive growth.
One substantial growth experience began when I took a unique opportunity at a start-up company, Digital Risk. This leap of faith turned out to be one of my best decisions. The company offered a ‘family-like’ culture where we were challenged to develop new ideas, products, efficiencies, and structure with the ultimate vision of “Making Mortgages Safe.” In fact, of its 1,500+ employees, 60% are female, and one out of two of the company’s leaders (Supervisor through Sr. Director) are female. Out of its executive leadership, 43% are female. Compared to national statistics, Digital Risk maintains a much higher percentage of women leaders, and I believe the company is a great model for the success organizations will see when they embrace promoting female leadership in the workplace.
While I have personally experienced great success at Digital Risk, the journey has not by any means been a perfect, vertical ascent. Many lessons were learned during this time that have shaped the person I have become. It is my hope that by sharing these lessons, other women in leadership roles or those wanting to climb the ladder will benefit from what I have learned.
- Feeling a level of stress and discomfort is actually good. It means you are being pushed outside of your comfort zone, which means you are continuing to learn and grow.
- Through failure, comes success. The only way to learn and grow is through making mistakes, taking risks, and sometimes failing. And that’s okay.
- Work life balance is a myth. You are always sacrificing one thing for the other. The key is prioritizing work and family matters so you have as much of a blend of both as possible. Some days and weeks may be more focused on work, while others are more focused on family.
- Identify your strengths and accept your weaknesses. No one is strong in every facet of a business or has every characteristic of being a leader. Build a team and surround yourself with those who fill in your gaps.
- It is ok to say “No” both professionally and personally. Accept and do things that fulfill you most to maintain the highest level of engagement in work and life.
- Have a vision and take one step at a time to fulfill it. Nothing is built and achieved overnight. As long as there is progress, take those successes to build upon.
Many of these lessons will be difficult to adhere to throughout one’s career. Most women who aim to take on leadership roles will need to overcome barriers, stereotypes, and inequality. However, taking just one minute to reflect on our skills, our successes, our leadership competencies, and these lessons listed above are reminders of women’s ability and right to successfully operate at an executive level.
As an individual who is passionate about leadership and mentoring, I was fortunate to find a company like Digital Risk. Having passion for what you do and working with an organization whose values align closely to yours ignites ambition. Finding that spark can be the difference between becoming complacent in what you are doing or having the desire to do more. Once that spark ignites, take a minute to remind yourself that you have the talent and competency to operate at whatever level you choose.
Traci Cox is the VP of Quality & Training for Digital Risk, LLC. She can be reached at: 407.215.2900, firstname.lastname@example.org