In the HBR article “Women Rising: the Unseen Barriers,” (September 2013) Ibarra, Ely, and Kolb note that efforts towards diversifying the workplace by adding women CEOs—the practice of “add women and stir”—inevitably fail because the concomitant infrastructure to support women in leadership roles is not in place. In other words, leadership is an “iterative” process; people become leaders by “internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose” (62). Validating women in leadership roles will help them see themselves as leaders—and in turn, act like leaders.
The article outlines three strategic actions that will facilitate the leadership process:
Education: The lack of women in leadership roles is not because of “deliberate exclusion,” but because a powerful force is at work to keep women from acting like leaders. Educating both men and women about second-generation gender-biases is vital to women’s success as leaders because: 1) women don’t have many mentors on the job; 2) career paths can be gendered (sales jobs for men v. support/operations jobs for women); 3) women lack professional networks and sponsors; 4) double-binds in expected gender roles undermine women’s identity (women as unselfish/nice v. men as independent/assertive). This education can happen most readily in colleges and universities when people are open to new knowledge and experiences.
Safe Opportunities to fail: There are fewer women in executive roles and thus, women who find themselves in leadership positions are not likely to take risks or “lean-in”. Lamenting about the dearth of women leaders after-the-fact, and insisting that women take risks without giving them safe opportunities to fail (without it being tantamount to career suicide) will likely result in greater attrition of female talent from executive leadership. Presenting women with opportunities for feedback from other women in similar positions of leadership and developing women’s identity as leaders is key to performance evaluation and self-improvement.
Purpose: Helping women ground their leadership focus on specific tasks such as “networking” can help them cross that impossible divide between likeability and expertise. Using Hilary Clinton as an example, the authors note that once she stopped focusing on how she was perceived, she was able to redirect her energies into “getting the job done” (66).
A “Women Rising” Leadership program, for example, can emphasize the value and complexity of diversity in top leadership and different challenges men and women face getting there. While the corporate world seems eager to diversify the workforce—by adding women CEOs and C-Suite positions—there is not significant corporate buy-in with respect to the training of women at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional school level. Research has shown that global competence is increasingly important in knowledge-based economies, and training students to thrive in diverse environments, indeed to find the strength to lead, makes all the difference between landing a job in the coveted C-suite versus the cubicle. “Understanding the value of career path dependency, power and politics in organizations, the role of stereotyping and role preconception gender bias, issues of family and work-life balance, the importance of networking and mentoring in deciphering codes and structures of social organizations,” (Maurer, WSJ Conference 2012) are germane to the field of women’s studies and gender research, and these programs should take the lead on executive training. American universities should provide basic leadership skills (at all levels of education: undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools) that are critical to success as a business manager, an academic, or an executive at a not-for-profit college or institute, and make it a point to address the particular challenges women face historically in developing the qualities and experiences that lead to top leadership. Without the scaffolding of education and support systems, we will face the same pitfalls of the “add women and stir” models. The interdisciplinary nature of women’s studies makes it natural home for integrating theory and experience to teach people to solve problems. Integrating gender studies with executive leadership will encourage global networking opportunities without the guilt of compromising social justice.