Women and the C-Suite

What are some of the impediments holding women back from the C-Suite and how can we impact change?

Executives who occupy the C-Suite influence all aspects of a business and can make a significant impact. The C-Suite remains a goal for many women in the professional arena. However, the journey there can be quite challenging for women and their success requires a steadfast determination. Long gone are the days of job postings stating, “no women need apply.” Still, there is no doubt that women experience gender discrimination in their quest to occupy the C-Suite or Executive Suite. C-Suite positions are filled by women 25% of the time according to a 2019 study by Korn Ferry, and the Chief Executive Officer role is filled by women only 6% of the time.

Role Models & Societal Models

For young aspiring professionals, role models are necessary for them to visualize what they can achieve. Seeing the professional success of women who have achieved their goals and building relationships with them can be a strong incentive for young women. Unfortunately, there are fewer female role models in business for young women to emulate.

Since women often underestimate their abilities and their strengths, without role models, they are left to question whether they can manage responsibilities that may well be a stepping stone towards their desired goal. Women will evaluate a project to ensure they have all the skills required. While men will typically look at a project or a role and feel confident they can get the job done.

Realistically women need to consider their ability to get the job done and the types of additional experience they will gain from the project experience or role. With a promotion to a contributing management role, one can gain knowledge, make important networking connections, and move forward. Middle management positions are necessary and important stepping stones to the executive suite.

As women move up the career ladder and are working to establish their professional lives, their personal lives make more demands on them than men. Research has shown that globally women perform 75% of the unpaid work in everyday life. A direct result of this statistic means that working women sometimes struggle with all of the demands made on them. They are frequently forced to choose between the mid-career promotion getting them closer to their goal or the demands of their personal life. Many corporations have very limited flexibility offered for women at this stage in their careers regardless of their capabilities or what they bring to the table. Career development can be impacted by the decisions that women are forced to make in an unforgiving business world.

Woman juggling balls on top of an elephant!

For many women juggling all of the personal and professional demands made on them, it can be quite draining. The challenges many face on their career path are very demanding and are often hard-fought battles. At the point they are being considered for the C-Suite role and the responsibilities aligned with it, they are worn down from the battles they had to fight to get there. Unfortunately, they will sometimes walk away from the opportunity to compete for such a role knowing that what lies ahead of them will more than likely be even more difficult than what was behind them.

Steps Towards Change

We need something more than an intellectual understanding of the need for change. We need concrete steps to encourage young women to strive for the top.

  • More female role models must be available for young women as mentors and guides. These role models should be highlighted and encouraged to work with young professional women helping them navigate their journey and to make wise decisions. Young women need to carry out research and seek out mentors to engage within the workplace.
  • Leadership skills are critical in upper management roles for business success. Women should seek and embrace every opportunity to enhance their leadership skills through training and experience. 
  • Women must take the initiative in discussing the flexibility they may need in their professional life to meet all the demands on them. They need to map out a plan that they can present to their management detailing any modifications they require to their existing commitments once they are a proven commodity professionally.
  • Women should seek out opportunities professionally to participate in women/men team building activities. They should challenge gender-specific activities and make recommendations.
  • Networking, networking, networking cannot be over-emphasized. The reality is that men know how to network and make connections whether it be at power lunches or the country club. Women should always seek networking opportunities and become actively involved as much as possible.

The steps I have outlined are just a few that can help women to move forward on their path to the management pipeline that currently consists primarily of men. The ability of young women and those in mid-career stages to make viable, strong decisions related to their career is hampered by the lack of equal opportunities for middle management roles. Only 21% of women who have arrived at the door of the C-Suite have held relevant management jobs as springboards to get there.

Women should seek positions in operations and finance, since these are important foundational experiences and provide leadership roles for advancement to the C-Suite. For every one-hundred professionals brought into management roles, men hold 62% of them while women hold only 38%. We must begin encouraging women in their quest for the executive suite at the developmental stages of their professional journey.

The path forward for women who wish to reach the Executive Suite level is not easy and requires dedication and focus. But women should never under-estimate themselves and if they prepare themselves properly they should know that they are more than qualified for these roles.

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