Almost 100 years after women were awarded the right to vote, they face another momentous evolution… the rise of the woman CEO. If you are active on LinkedIn at all, you have undoubtedly and regularly seen headlines across all business sectors and sizes that read something like “[Insert Business] Hires their First Female CEO”. Part of me wants to celebrate on behalf of all women. Part of me cringes that hiring your first female CEO is still a headline in 2019, almost 2020. Why has it taken so long for companies to pull strong women candidates through the ranks into the c-suite? Here is what I have observed from 20 years in my former company (who has still yet to make such an announcement) along with my exposure of others:

  1. The Catch-22. Characteristics that are perceived as strengths in male executives are seen as weaknesses in females. Being bold, direct and decisive are heralded as leadership qualities in males. But females who exhibit the same characteristics are often times criticized for being harsh, edgy (or the “b” word) and uncollaborative. However, if females behave more according to the societal norm of gentle, nurturing and accommodating, they are perceived as weak, wishy-washy, lacking of fortitude. Which begs the question, what are the leadership qualities of strong female executive candidates if they are different than ones for men?
  2. Loss of legacy due to name change. True story… I was in a meeting when I was sharing the strong credentials of a female executive. One person was confused until I shared that she was recently married and changed her name. The person remarked: “What a shame she changed her name. Now nobody knows who she is.” I too remind people in my website “About” section to google me under my former married name to get the full picture of my accomplishments. Otherwise, how does someone connect the dots?
  3. The “Diversity Inclusion” backfire.  Even if we don’t want to admit it, there is always a little piece of us who wonders if a woman’s rise to the top is because of merit or optics.  This undoubtedly generates petty gossip which shrouds her success. Ironically, this is not isolated to men. In fact, alpha females can be even worse.  There is a certain prestige that comes with being the “first” and sometimes “only”. It feels elite, special, rewarding, exclusive…trailblazing. But it also gives the false perception that there can be only one.  So, instead of women pulling women up, they hold them back so as not to have competition. Often times I saw this framed up as a “rite of passage” or “paying your dues”. But isn’t trailblazing making the path easier for those who follow?   
  4. The “baby birthing” factor.  In the hundreds of business mastery stories I have listened to on podcasts, there is a nuanced difference in the way females and males reflect on their journey.  Females will be sharing their story when they will remark, “…and I was doing all of this when I became a mom.” Interestingly, men rarely interject the birth of their kids into their story.  That doesn’t mean kids didn’t have a dramatic impact nor that they abdicated their responsibility. But the truth of the matter is women are still the ones who have to grow, give birth to, nurture and recover from having babies.  Is there anyone who would argue that this time commitment has an impact on progression, role assignment and reviews?      

The point of this is not to pass blame or shame.  The intent is to bring awareness that both sides of the gender pool have some work to do.  Males and females alike need to recognize and over-come their personal biases as well as the biases in the systems that run their businesses.  Only then will the talent pool of potential candidates be more homogeneous in its make-up. Here are suggestions for doing just that:

  • Analyze your systems and processes for inadvertent barriers keeping female talent from rising.  Consider:  progression planning, recruitment, role succession, maternity leave, mentorship, and flexible work schedules, just to name a few.  Question if these systems are fostering the best talent overall or biased towards one.  Interestingly, you may find that these systems are also inadvertently putting unfair pressure on men to sell their souls to their jobs instead of enjoying the fulfillment of a more balanced life.  So, be mindful of both and standardize across the board to avoid resentment which will undermine progress. 
  • Set expectations for leadership and hold them consistent.  This takes a savvy evaluator because you need to look past other people’s biases to evaluate the leader’s effectiveness.  For example, as mentioned above, it is common for females to get negative feedback if they are perceived as a “strong personality”.  Instead of considering this a character flaw, investigate first. Is she getting good results? If she were a male in the role would she be getting the same feedback?  Is there something more at play like a lack of respect, credibility, or acceptance? Dig deeper.
  • Take the responsibility to manage your message.  In other words, be part of the solution, not the problem.  Recognize when biases may be playing a role in your thoughts, beliefs and communications.  Then choose differently. Be the catalyst to shift perceptions and evangelize for wanting the “best person for the job”.   

And for any of the women reading this, let’s choose to be the change.  This means connecting the dots to preserve our legacy, promoting our female and male colleagues alike, taking on a female mentee and make her success a necessary part of our own, tackling the systems that are inadvertently holding us back, and be really good at what we do.  We are not victims, we are not whiners…we are trailblazers. Just like the women who came before us who won us the right to vote. Let’s make them proud!