Can Women Truly Succeed in Your Organization?

Take a good look around your workplace. You’ll likely see plenty of women. Now go take a look at the C-Suite.
See many women there? That’s right, I didn’t think so.

I don’t want to be a downer or anything, but Corporate America has got some pretty deep-seated, systemic problems (girl-issues, to use the vernacular) and we need to get them straightened out.

  • In the US, only 17% of senior executives are women, according to a 2012 study
  • Only 6% of CEOs in the US are women, according to that same Grant Thornton study
  • Despite this being the 21st century, women still face a 77% salary gap
  • Women are drastically less likely to receive VC backing

(I’m not even going to get into this whole “brogrammer” thing because it makes me so damn angry that I want to break things. We’ll get to that nonsense another day.)

Women seem to be getting a bit of a raw deal. What gives? More importantly, what do we do about it? Do we even care?

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, who I think writes some fascinating stuff, pointed out in her HBR piece the other day that more “macho” cultures, such as Brazil, seem to do better at having female business leaders than we do (she cites the Grant Thorton report, showing that 27% of senior executives in Brazil are women). She posits, based on her own experiences, that the Brazilian culture accepts the differences between men and women, and doesn’t let gender get in the way of ability.

In the US (and a number of other western, Anglo nations) she continues, we try to negate those differences, and out of a sense of egalitarianism, treat everyone “the same.” She believes that the negation of difference actually hinders women. I think she’s on to something here.

I had a brief conversation with an erudite and clever friend on Twitter the other day about this topic. She decried the “difference” angle and said something along the lines of, “why can’t we all just be HUMAN, and be treated like humans?!”

Because let’s be honest here: Women ARE different than men. And that’s a good thing.

I’ll admit it, I’m biased: I recognize, accept, and value differences. I’m a big fan of heterogeneity in organizations. Differences are good. They create tension. They create opportunities for debate and investigation. They create alternate viewpoints, experiences, and approaches. Differences should be celebrated and leveraged.

My friend makes a really good point – of course we should all be treated like humans. We should all be given basic respect, and have agency and power to live our lives and succeed in our chosen professions, regardless of gender, creed, color or organizational affiliations. She wrote a really good article about it, too. But that one-ness she’s looking for? That human-ness? Let me drop this one on the congregation: e pluribus unum. It’s our differences that make us who we are, and it’s our differences that pull us together and make us strong. The challenge is to create cultures and systems that embrace and advance differences, rather than seeking sameness and homogeneity.

Facts is facts, gang: female leaders work differently from male leaders, and bring alternate viewpoints to the table, and we need those different ways of seeing and doing. And if we want women leaders, we have to cultivate and advance women employees. This doesn’t mean just “promoting more women.” It means celebrating and leveraging the differences for competitive advantage.

Maybe we should just let women be women?

Women should not have to act like men to succeed in business and earn promotions. Women should not have to choose between advancing their career and having children. Studies show that women tend to not ask for raises – so does that mean it’s okay for a firm to pay them less than a male who does? – and that women who actually do ask for a raise are perceived negatively. These are all examples of the baked-in cultural norms (to quote another Avivah article) that prevent women from moving up the ranks. These are also the sort of reasons why, as research tells us, that 95% of women leaving the workforce to have children wouldn’t come back to their former employers.

They leave, and don’t come back. And honestly, if this is the culture we create, why the hell would they?

In the name of trying to be fair – treating everyone the “same” – we force women to accept conditions that are just frankly, unfair. We drive them – and their talents and skills and institutional knowledge and untold thousands of dollars of investment in training – out of the enterprise. We know from that same research that it’s pretty difficult for women coming back to pick up where they left off, and continue their trajectory, too – only 40% of the “on-rampers” come back to full time jobs, and they’ve lost 18% of their earning power. So over time, as highly qualified females leave and then struggle on the come-back, the leadership teams of businesses become more and more homogenous, and you end up with the sterotypical picture of corporate America’s upper echelon: white dudes.

Here’s why this is important: organizations that are too homogenous run the risk of intellectual inbreeding, groupthink, mental complacency and inevitable decline.

Get hip to this: 57% of the undergraduate and 60% of the advanced degrees now coming out of our colleges and universities are held by females. There’s going to be a lot more women in the workforce soon. As leaders – regardless of our titles, positions or even, yes, genders – we need to create organizational cultures that understand these differences, accept them, and find ways to use them to our collective advantage. We have a choice: we can make our companies the sorts of places that women can succeed and want to stay in (or come back to), or we can keep doing the same old thing. Your choice.

As the father of two young girls, I know what kind of corporate culture I’m going to try to build.

So, which is it going to be? Will females truly succeed in YOUR organization?

Seth Cargiuolo

Leave a Comment

    • Pete
    • August 17, 2012

    Great article Seth, can’t believe I didnt read this one already. Your point that ‘Studies show that women tend to not ask for raises – so does that mean it’s okay for a firm to pay them less than a male who does? – and that women who actually do ask for a raise are perceived negatively.’ is exactly what I have seen at work and with friends and IT DRIVES ME CRAZY!
    Aren’t we all, after all, just humans being?

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