Women’s History Month is upon us, and while I am a huge advocate for looking to the past for representations of women leading the fight for gender equality in the workplace, this year I can’t help but look around and notice all the great leaders I get to see in my position as executive director of a nonprofit organization.
One example is Beth Gitlin, the executive director of weVENTURE at Florida Institute of Technology, which provides mentoring, training and other assistance to female entrepreneurs.
I recently attended weVENTURE’s Success Celebration, an event where the organization shares stories of the impact it has made on its clients. Beth issued a call to action that day that could be felt throughout the room. Her passion for helping women succeed in business and the deep personal connection she feels for mentoring and women helping other women – supported by practice driven-results – was a real learning moment for me.
Beth didn’t try to communicate her ideas in a “masculine way,” which is often something women think they need to do to be successful. She did it in her way; it was personal and emotional.
I wrote Beth afterward and told her how powerful and free of constraints she seemed that day. It is a moment that has stayed with me and really gave me a new vocabulary of sorts on how to communicate the projects I work on for my community.
I see that women like Beth Gitlin have the qualities of being good leaders – honesty, intelligence, decisiveness, organization, compassion, ambition and innovation.
Countless studies have highlighted women’s ability to assume leadership roles and the benefits they bring to organizations, including driving business and boosting profits. Despite these findings, women remain underrepresented in corner offices and C-suites nationwide. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey on Women and Leadership:
Though these numbers are low, women are moving into the leadership pipeline – more than half of managerial and professional occupations were held by women.
So what is preventing women from advancing to higher roles?
A 2016 study by Development Dimensions International (DDI), a talent management group, found that women are chosen more often for assessment at lower leadership levels than at senior levels, which tells women “it’s okay to be a lower-level leader, but you’re not ready to rise to the top.”
This was echoed by a 2015 McKinsey/LeanIn.org study titled Women in the Workplace, which found that women are less likely to advance across the board, but particularly from manager to director.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why this gap persists, and explore possible measures women and companies can take to bridge the divide.
One key factor is the culture and structure of the workplace. Though men are contributing in the home more than ever before, women still assume most of the child care and household responsibilities. Flexible work schedules that allow for women to meet their family’s needs, career responsibilities and educational goals are crucial.
Women having support in the home allows them to take on more at work. A 2015 Pew Research report noted that 42% of working mothers had reduced their work hours to care for a child or other family member, and almost as many had taken significant time off for the same reason. By comparison, 28% and 24% of working fathers reported cutting hours or taking extended breaks from work, respectively.
Family-friendly policies clearly are important in helping women advance to high-level positions. However, the McKinsey/LeanIn.org study found that 90% of women and men “believe that taking extended family leave will hurt their position at work.”
Creating a company culture that negates this fear is essential in order to encourage employees to use such benefits.
Mentoring can be a crucial component in an individual’s success, especially for women. But the DDI study noted that nearly two-thirds of women have never had a formal mentor.
My advice: Don’t wait for someone to seek you out. Instead, seek out others. Observe how people carry themselves in meetings and find someone of whom you can ask difficult questions. For me, personally, seeking out additional projects to work on has been a huge benefit to my career. It allowed me to show off skills that I would not have been able to demonstrate in my everyday position.
The McKinsey/LeanIn.org study found that nearly three-quarters of companies reported gender diversity as a top CEO priority, but fewer than half of workers believed that gender diversity was prioritized by their chief executive officer.
Companies should seek out female board members to facilitate the advancement of women business leaders, especially young professionals. That includes a conscious effort to have diversity in leadership positions – women will promote other women, and will bring attention to how a company’s policies and structure might present a barrier to women being more successful in the organization.
Companies can also structure networking opportunities that make it easier for women to attend, and institute mentoring programs to foster development and growth of female leaders.
This Women’s History Month I want to celebrate the work women have done to create an environment where I am not the only woman in the room. I am witness to female leadership in all its forms because of the strides the women’s movement has made and continues to make.
Make it a point this month to reach out to those women in your life who lead by example and tell them why you admire what they do. Hillary Clinton recently shared a moment in her political life where a female colleague whispered “Dare to compete” in her ear. I love that – dare to lead in all aspects of your life and do so in a way that is authentic to you, not what “traditional” leaders are supposed to do.
Shape the conversation, change the discourse and support those around you who are leading the way to a more equitable environment for all women.
Jarin Eisenberg is executive director of Melbourne Main Street and previously was coordinator of online degree programs at Florida Tech’s Bisk College of Business. To learn more about Eisenberg, read our interview here.