More and more companies are now strongly supporting and campaigning for young women starting out in their career. McKinsey’s Next Generation Women Leaders can be cited as an example. Moreover, U.S. companies have been very active in developing office cultures that support women in the workforce. However, as mentioned by Dr. Jennifer Leeds during the GPWomeN-PCCW workshop at Cornell University: “less attention has been paid to the needs of women as they face challenges later in their careers, especially once they have reached positions of senior leadership”.

Dr. Jennifer Leeds is the Executive Director and Head of Antibacterial Discovery within the Infectious Diseases Area of the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research. Besides her role as Head of Antibacterial Discovery, Dr. Leeds is involved in training and mentoring programs for young scientists, young women, and seasoned professionals.

Dr. Leeds and I are going to talk about senior female leaders’ unmet needs in the workplace: how can we enable women throughout the entirety of their professional careers?

Q: What is it that holds aging women leaders back from asking for help?

Over the last few decades, support for young women entering the workforce has grown tremendously, followed by an increasing visibility of their needs starting out in their careers. Advocacy by senior women from the prior generation(s) strengthened this trend as they have paved the way for the development of mentoring programs, accommodations to address work/life balance, and mechanisms to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace.

These support mechanisms have made it more acceptable for young women to ask for the support that they need in order to grow in their professional lives while balancing the demands on their personal lives. However, what I’ve observed, and others have documented with data (Philippa Gavranich, 2011; Angela Trethewey, 2001) is that older women who have achieved the status of senior leaders do not make their own needs visible. They feel the necessity to be present and fully functional all the time, thus, they avoid appearing weak or vulnerable at any time. The reason behind this attitude is that they are typically in more competitive roles, have larger scopes of responsibility, and face concerns about obsolescence. As a result, they do not have a similarly large support system in place, and they tend to hold back asking for help with challenges that typically arise later in life. Furthermore, a survey of aging senior women leaders in Australia documented the perception that if there’s any indication of resorting to assistance during a period of personal challenge, such as coping with the physical and psychological changes associated with menopause, aging senior women leaders would be not only judged very harshly but also be at risk for losing their senior leadership positions. The same concerns could apply to women who are caring for declining parents [1] or partners, or facing illnesses often associated with aging, such as breast cancer.

Q: Why does this need to be addressed and what will happen as a result? What are the consequences of ignoring the needs of aging women leaders?

The reason why this situation needs to be addressed is that more and more women are achieving positions of leadership based on the value that they create. Consequently, if we continue to support and advocate for women entering the workforce, they will grow to an even larger proportion in the future. Thus, if all goes well, more of these young women will find themselves in positions of senior leadership around the age when they will be facing different life challenges than they experienced at a younger age. If ignored, these challenges will impact productivity and decrease output for the organization because they distract women from focusing on achieving their goals in the workplace. To avoid so, one should identify solutions for enabling aging women leaders to achieve success for the organization while providing the necessary focus on their personal needs to address challenges more successfully and achieve resolution more efficiently.

If we can support the needs of aging women leaders and create a non-threatening environment where women in highly competitive roles can ask for the help and advice that they need, we can ensure that women will bring high value to their organizations and enjoy a productive career for as long as they choose to. On the other hand, if we ignore the needs of these aging senior women leaders, we risk seeing a widening of the gender gap at the senior leader level despite the growing number of younger women entering into positions of leadership who have benefited from support at the early stages of their careers.

Lastly, if we do not encourage an awareness of these needs and we do not advocate for, and take action to drive support for aging women leaders, we will not fully benefit from a highly skilled and experienced component of our workforce.

Q: How can the next generation of women leaders “pay it forward” so that the environment is better for them than it is for their predecessors?

The up and coming generation of men and women entering the workforce and achieving positions of leadership needs to be sensitive to the needs of women at all stages of life, not just in the early years of their careers…

As the next generation of women leaders is seeking support and identifying solutions to continue to create value for their organizations, it is important that they acknowledge the challenges of, and offer support to their senior female leaders, mentors and role models. They can be discreet in how they approach the needs of senior women leaders and at the same time be vocal advocates for change that will benefit today’s senior women leaders as well as themselves in the future.

It also relevant to point out that since senior women leaders are in positions where their actions and decisions are amplified throughout an organization, the more they raise an awareness of their challenges and needs, and the more they advocate for support, the more chances there are for actions that positively impact everyone in their environment.