Sacrificing leadership: Defining choices that impact women

Leveraging data to facilitate constructive discussions for change is what fuels equitable and inclusive opportunities for women.

Over the past few decades, a tremendous amount of research has been done to analyze the trends surrounding women in leadership. Whether it’s the percentage of women who secure top executive positions in business or the gender disparity within the leadership ranks of Fortune 500 companies, many consulting and research firms have analyzed the data and shared it for public consumption. 

These data points are important and play a key role in educating and shining a light on a topic that may not get the attention it deserves in every organization. Leveraging data to surface and facilitate constructive discussions for change is what fuels equitable and inclusive opportunities for women.

While important, this article is not about the data but rather the choices women must make in order to succeed in leadership. Choices about their own development, allocating time to push past their comfort zone and how to define their own unique leadership style. The research suggests that the first foray into leadership comes with more difficulty for women and is often influenced by industry, organizational culture and company values. Many women in the corporate landscape face adapting to and settling for the status quo, particularly early on in their careers.

Female colleagues have expressed frustration at still being asked to take notes during meetings or take on similar administrative-type duties that their male counterparts simply don’t get asked to do. Sometimes, it is an assumed expectation or  implied that those tasks should fall to female counterparts for whatever reason. When the implication is rooted in acknowledged or perceived gender bias, the defining traits of leadership become more difficult to see. Leadership characteristics generally thought of as masculine (decisiveness, strategic, commanding, etc.) are typically rewarded for men and questioned for women. Yet, if women share an imbalanced load of administrative tasks, it is much more difficult for those leadership traits to be observed and recognized by others.

When women are repeatedly put in positions that diminish their talents and accept it as the norm, we do ourselves and future women leaders a disservice. It silences opportunities to be seen and heard, and equally as important, it shifts our consciousness and mindfulness about gender stereotypes. Even more damaging is how organizations inadvertently create environments where women who want to become leaders instead become ambivalent about leadership. As organizations, are we willing to sacrifice the potential of our talent pool due to this ambivalence? As individuals, are we willing to sacrifice our potential because of the environment we find ourselves in?

For women who aspire to become leaders or advance in their current role, yet do so with hesitation because of organizational cultural norms or perceived imbalances of power, there are three things that will assist in discovering if gender bias is a barrier to growth. 

1.      Self-Reflect

If you are unsure about your strengths and abilities, or need guidance from others, seek feedback from those closest to you and willing to give you honest feedback. Holding up a mirror and being candid with yourself can be a painful process; however, until articulating your strengths becomes second nature, it is an obstacle that needs overcoming. Soliciting feedback after important meetings or presentations can be excellent opportunities to learn what you might do differently or validate what you are already doing well. The biggest disrupter to your own development, the one who can choose to advocate for you or choose to settle for the status quo, is the one who looks back at you in the mirror.  

2.      Analyze Your Next Move

Acknowledgment of inequities is not acceptance. Leverage the trusted relationships you have built and get other points of view about gender bias or inequities you see. Confirming or negating your perceptions helps you to see if the picture you have painted for yourself is true or still unclear. Engaging in this type of dialogue can be challenging at first, but it is the only way change can come.  From a higher viewpoint, you may recognize that change is needed in your organization, and that may be something you don’t have a lot of influence over today. Analyze the dynamics of your organization to uncover the truths that exist. Achieve your own conclusions and determine whether or not they align with your goals and beliefs.  

3.      Create Your Path 

Success translates differently for each of us.  Your belief today may be that this type of task is an immovable mountain riddled with problems and roadblocks; however, you have the ability and capacity for change within yourself. If you still need to get your own development plan, look to create one. Write down your goals no matter how small, commit them to memory and execute them in accordance with your own timeline. Push yourself to stretch out of your comfort zone and learn more about the things that are important for you.

Lastly, if you are a female in a leadership role today, I encourage you to lift others in their development and help pave the way for change. While not everyone desires to serve in a leadership role, the more we can support other women and engage in real discussions about challenges and opportunities, the more we help ensure that the next generation of female leaders has a greater chance of going further than what we can imagine today.