Here’s how to propel more women into the c-suite

During my days as a higher education administrator, I asked a very talented deputy to develop a list of candidates for a senior executive role that had just opened.

She came back with excellent recommendations. There was just one problem.

“Why didn’t you put yourself on this list?” I asked her. “You’re more than qualified.”

She said she didn’t think she was the right fit.

I asked her why.

She said she didn’t have all the necessary experience for the job. But, in looking at their resumes, it was clear that none of the candidates were perfectly qualified. Almost no one ever is.

We had several more conversations in the days that followed. And after confirming that this job aligned well with her career goals along with a bit more convincing from colleagues, my deputy ultimately ended up in that senior role, nine years later. She has since advanced into even higher ones.

However, not enough stories involving talented women leaders end this way.

More women than ever before are moving into management positions, and that’s very good news. But the proportion of women in senior organisational roles globally has been stuck at 24% for more than a decade.

Why is this?

There are many factors — from gender bias and lack of equal opportunities to inflexible organisational cultures. Throughout my own experience over the past 40 years as a leader in the military, higher education, and nonprofit sectors, and as a member of numerous boards, I’ve repeatedly encountered an inequity that all of us must recognize and address: women are often hired based on experience and accomplishments, while men are frequently hired based on potential.

Research has confirmed this issue, which leaves women constantly having to prove their readiness and ability while male colleagues are many times promoted faster, despite having fewer qualifications. It’s not surprising then that my deputy who assembled that candidate list looked at her own experiences and determined they weren’t enough. But the truth is, I was looking for both experience and potential - and she had the best mix.

Having different hiring standards for women and men, whether they are intentional or the result of unconscious bias, is a serious problem — for women who want and deserve to advance into senior roles and also for organisations that, as evidence shows, will perform better if they have more women in top management slots.

Three strategies to get more women in the c-suite

Here are three practical strategies, drawing on our extensive research on women in the workplace, for turning the tables and betting on the potential of women leaders in our organisations.

  1. Create cultures that sponsor women leaders. More than once in my own career, I’ve nearly talked myself out of pursuing promotions because I didn’t think I had the experience. Fortunately, my bosses thought differently and didn’t let me miss those chances. We need to do the same for all the talent in our organisations. Data suggests that women are less likely to raise their hands for bigger roles and that they are more likely to be passed over for men whose potential is perceived to be greater, even when women are better qualified. So, their bosses need to be much more proactive in helping women identify and act on potential promotions — and in advocating for them throughout the hiring process. Learn more about why talented women leaders need a network of champions. Ultimately, this is about changing organisational cultures in support of gender equity in the workplace, and senior executives are best positioned to lead that effort.
  2. Deliver challenging assignments. To help women prepare to thrive in bigger leadership roles, we need to be deliberate about providing challenging assignments that widen their range of professional experience and build new leadership skills. These are the roles we call “heat experiences” for development — assignments that are new, uncomfortable, high-profile, and carry the risk of failure. Those experiences help us develop playbooks in our heads gained from practical experience that help us process information faster and make good decisions more quickly. The more mental maps we have, the more successful we can be as leaders.
  3. Provide feedback and mentoring. If we’re going to offer challenging assignments, we also need to offer women the right support — through feedback, mentoring, and coaching that helps them learn from new assignments and apply that learning. This needs to be a lot more than just a 60-minute conversation once a year during annual performance appraisals. Understand the aspirations of women leaders and then foster continuous feedback and talent conversations about developing the specific leadership skills needed to get there. We must also help women widen their networks by making available mentors and coaches who can offer fresh perspectives and advice. Men, research shows, mentor men more often than they mentor women, and that’s something we can and absolutely must change. We should be part of a network of champions for talented women leaders.

There’s no reason to wait on any of these actions. As leaders, we can take them today - and there’s no doubt that emerging women leaders and our organisations will both reap the benefits.

John Ryan
CCL’s President and CEO