A Path for C-Suite Parity

Women are still excluded from top leadership positions. Resolving that problem requires some flexibility—and debunking some myths.

Despite a lot of hard work on the matter in recent years, gender parity in the C-suite is still a struggle. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies has steadily increased, but still only represent about 10 percent of the total; on the governance side, women only make up about 30 percent of corporate board members.

A recent report from Gallup points out that part of the reason for the gap is work-life balance—more women are charged with parenting and other caregiving roles that can wear away at ambition to climb the ladder. But the report suggests that there’s also more going on.

If diverse paths to the C-suite are created more intentionally, more women are likely to pursue leadership.

For one thing, the perception of what top leadership roles require can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. A larger percentage of men tend to express interest in those jobs than women, but that gap narrows when you ask men and women who already have leadership roles about their interest in leading. “As people gain experience managing others, they may also gain confidence in their ability to do so, and leadership roles likely feel more within reach,” according to the report.

So in many ways, this is an ongoing pipeline challenge—if diverse paths to the C-suite are created more intentionally, more women are likely to pursue leadership. (LeanIn.org’s annual “Women in the Workplace” report neatly visualizes how opportunities narrow for women, and especially women of color, the larger the leadership roles become.) But making a change requires a public and vocal commitment to developing diverse leaders and addressing the challenges that create leadership gaps. Flexible work policies help, according to the Gallup report, but “organizations must create a culture that supports and promotes their workers’ appropriate use of such policies,” the report says. “Employees are listening and watching for an indication that the expressed culture is real and something lived at all levels.”

(And by the way, there’s no political divide on the importance of this effort, despite rhetoric that conservative leaders are more resistant to DEI initiatives. Speaking on the radio program Marketplace in February, Ying McGuire, president and CEO of the National Minority Supplier Development Council, pointed to a survey from the Public Private Strategies Institute that found that 75 percent of politically conservative executives said “diversity initiatives are essential to their business strategy…. It’s not really about politics. Diversity is simply good business.”)

But developing effective policies that create a diverse leadership corps shouldn’t require guesswork. As with any diversity initiative, the process starts with conversations with the people who need to be part of the pipeline. “The best way to determine what kind of leadership development women want is to ask them,” says the Gallup report. “Implement a comprehensive listening strategy that enables and supports the prioritization of advancement initiatives.” 

That process may also reveal areas where C-suite operations have become inefficient. Oftentimes, climbing the leadership ladder means putting in a lot of face time, where visibility is wrongly equated with effectiveness. The LeanIn.org report notes that men are just as eager for flexible workplace roles as women. Looking at the kinds of leadership work that make the organization truly effective can make it easier for a wider range of people to become a part of it.

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