Companies Struggle to Develop Female Leaders

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There are distinct perception gaps between genders and among managerial levels in how effective organizations are when it comes to recruiting, developing and retaining women, according to a February 2012 survey by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Although women make up more than half of the labor force in the United States, according to the U.S. Census of 2010, they are underrepresented in leadership roles at all levels. Research by Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization, finds that companies with significant numbers of women in leadership roles outperform those with fewer female leaders. Because the success of an organization hinges on the quality of its leaders, it is crucial that perceptions about female leaders match reality so companies can be sure that they are doing the right things. 

Often, men and women have different perspectives on business issues. Susan Cates, president and associate dean of executive development at Kenan-Flagler, said that having a diversity of perspectives is essential for an organization to be able to innovate, grow and be successful, which is especially critical for leaders who create vision and strategy.

“The world needs better business leaders; people who can get things done and lead people and organizations, irrespective of gender,” Cates said. “Companies need to look at what they’re doing to attract and retain the best leaders. If a company has a one-size-fits-all approach, it might not be doing an effective job appealing to a broad spectrum of potential leadership talent—including women—and it just might lose great talent to its competition.” 

Senior-Level Executives vs. Managers

When people work their way to the top of an organization, they tend to think that the systems they have are benefiting the company. The research shows that a significantly greater number of senior executives, including women themselves, maintain a more favorable view than managers on the recruitment, development and retention of women.

The survey, based on the responses of 925 talent development managers and C-suite executives from the United States, Brazil, China and India, revealed that the most senior executives were far more likely than managers to:

  • Report an increase of women in leadership positions in their companies over the past five years (60 percent of top leaders vs. 38 percent of managers).
  • Say that their companies were extremely or moderately effective in recruiting female executives (53 percent vs. 28 percent).
  • Say that efforts to develop women in their companies are extremely or moderately effective (49 percent vs. 30 percent).
  • Say that efforts to retain women in their companies are extremely or moderately effective (68 percent vs. 44 percent).

Mindy Storrie, director of leadership development at Kenan-Flagler, said that senior leaders might be more aware of the efforts to support women because they have a broader view of the organization than managers and often are more involved in making strategic and financial decisions. “I believe this perception gap based on managerial level may be associated with decision-making and access to information,” she explained. “If you are responsible for establishing strategic direction and policy, you most likely believe you are doing more than others may believe and/or even be aware of.”

On the other hand, senior leaders might be less involved when it comes to the implementation and execution of these efforts, so they might not be able to gauge program effectiveness.

In addition, female senior-level respondents, because of their success, might be somewhat biased to the situation because they have been successful at overcoming barriers to their own personal advancement. “The system obviously worked for them in some way, and that might color their perception in a favorable way,” Cates said. 

Men vs. Women

Although men and women are involved in hiring, developing and retaining women, the research revealed that men are far more likely than women to believe that:

  • The number of women in leadership positions in their companies has increased over the past five years (65 percent of male respondents vs. 44 percent of female respondents).
  • The number of women in leadership positions will continue to increase over the next five years (57 percent vs. 36 percent).
  • Their company is extremely or moderately effective in recruiting women (53 percent vs. 33 percent).
  • Their company is extremely or moderately effective in developing women (52 percent vs. 33 percent).
  • Their company is extremely or moderately effective in retaining women (73 percent vs. 52 percent).

Storrie said that men have a more enthusiastic attitude than women because these decisions have a less direct impact on them. “Men may be aware of the efforts in place to support women business leaders, but they may have less insight into whether these activities are effective,” she said. “They might hope and assume these efforts are more effective than they are in practice.”

Another possible explanation is that women might have higher expectations for leadership development efforts and a higher bar for what constitutes success in terms of numbers.

Perceived Barriers to Advancement

The survey explored barriers that might prevent women from advancing to upper management. Lack of an executive sponsor or mentor is the most commonly perceived barrier, followed by an absence of female role models and the belief that women in the organizations have not been in the leadership “pipeline” long enough.

Just 16 percent of respondents said there are no barriers at their company. 

Storrie said another major issue is that many organizations make it difficult for women to have a successful career and a family. “Today, 40 percent of women in the U.S. workforce are working mothers, and nearly two-thirds are primary or co-breadwinners,” she said. 

Because of this shift in the workforce among women, companies need to respond by removing real or merely perceived barriers that could prevent women from becoming leaders. Storrie said the best way for organizations to do this is by providing women with flexible workplace options, such as working part time from home and using a compressed workweek. She emphasized that a company’s willingness to be flexible will maximize its chances of getting the best possible leaders.

“The number of women as primary breadwinners and co-breadwinners, combined with their overwhelming purchasing power, makes them an economic force to be reckoned with,” Storrie said. “Organizations that recognize this and that actively recruit, develop and retain women into leadership roles will reap the reward directly to their bottom lines.”

Eytan Hirsch is a staff writer for SHRM. To read the original article, please click here.