In General

Just today there was a new Linked In poll that was published. The question that was asked is “Why aren’t there more women CEO’s?”  You could only pick one response which is tough as the issue is complex and there are many reasons. The 241 respondents picked the following responses:

  • Institutional barriers (42%)
  • Family is a bigger priority (26%)
  • Lack of workplace flexibility (15%)
  • Lack of female role models (7%)
  • Less willing to take risks (10%)

Assuming that the data is fully representative of the sentiment of women leaders, here are three questions that the survey caused me to ask:

1) What are the most important institutional barriers? Likely, the high response rate on this means that there are multiple drivers underneath and we need to understand them.  Based on the early comments coming in they seem to be around lack of sponsorship for women (“good old boy networks”). What do you think they are?

2) What do I do as a leader to change these institutional barriers? Personally, I have a hard time blaming “institutions” for our problems, because I don’t know who that is.  Blaming others keeps us in victim mode. When we are empowered we ask the question “What is one small step I can take to change these institutional barriers?” and then just go do it. If we are not willing to be part of the solution we are part of the problem.  Ask yourself that question.  Here are some possible ways to be part of the solution:

  • Start by believing in yourself. You are here to make an important difference. You have strengths and gifts that have been given to you to make that difference. You have a very important leadership purpose so find it and move purposely toward it.
  • Help a woman leader believe in herself by letting her know what strengths you have observed in her. Encourage her to reach for her goals.
  • Sponsor a woman by giving her access to powerful people and assignments in your organization.
  • Partner up with a woman leader who you admire and ask whether she will be your accountability partner in helping you reach your goals and do the same for her.
  • Start or sponsor a women’s mentoring circle in your organization or community (I’m going to be putting free resources on my website about how to do this soon – that’s my “Be the change you wish to see in the world” commitment).

These don’t take more time. They just take the right attitude in the time you have with someone.

3) What if we imagined a world where 250 of the Fortune 500 CEO’s were women? Instead of focusing on the barriers in front of us, how about we imagine what that world would look like? What would need to change? I’m writing a blog post about this and would welcome your contributions. So comment below and share your “250 Fortune 500 CEO” fantasy. Unless we imagine it, we cannot make it happen.

If this resonated for you, please comment, subscribe, and share with others.

Additional Information

Why I Don’t Want to be #1 – What keeps women from pursuing paths of power

Confessions of a Corporate Drop-Out – Why women opt out of corporate America

Showing 6 comments
  • Lisa Shelley

    Hi Hema, Great article. I also struggle with the idea of “institutional barriers,” without a better understanding of what those are. In my experience, women who focus on performance, have a strong alignment with the needs and goals of the business and are comfortable with the business culture, have no difficulty in climbing the corporate ladder. However, I think that many women do ultimately find themselves at odds with the culture in much of corporate america. Is that an institutional barrier? I probably wouldn’t call it that as it is a personal choice, however many may perceive it that way.

    To borrow a phrase from Sheryl Sandberg, I think that women tend to “lean-in” to their values, which generally involve many stakeholders, not just their business. As long as corporate culture remains such that reaching the C-suite requires that you must sacrifice the other elements of your life, you will continue to see a lower representation of women in those roles.

    What you will see is more talented and capable women finding other ways to utilize their skills, in an environment that provides them more autonomy and flexibility relative to their time, whether that means starting their own business, consulting, non-profit work or running the PTA. Who knows, when enough women entrepreneurs have started businesses, we might begin to see a big enough shift in corporate culture to achieve parity in terms of CEOs.

  • Jeffrey P. Rush

    Of course the survey itself assumes there are barriers. I’m not so sure in 2013 that’s the case. People make choices. Choices have consequences. Perhaps it’s the choices that women make in their career that’s the problem not some kind of glass ceiling or other institutional barriers (which the author here rightly notes is an inanimate object).

    • Henna

      Hi Jeffrey – Thanks for joining the conversation.

      I agree with you that people make choices and choices have consequences. Here’s my perspective on why there aren’t more women CEO’s. The issue is two-fold:

      1) Women often make different choices than men. They have a definition of success that is broader than getting to the next step in the corporate hierarchy or even getting to the CEO position. Their work and family trade-offs are different. Most still have the role of primary care giver in the family.

      2) There is a lot of research about “unconscious biases” that exist in organizations that make it tougher for women to get ahead. I’ll go out on a limb and use a sports analogy…it’s like asking someone who runs marathons to win in the 100-meter dash. Many of the rules of the game don’t come naturally to women (self-promotion, going for the next job even if you’re not ready, etc).

      So the solution in my opinion is for women to determine what’s important to each of us and then focus on that.

  • Sarah Elkins

    Thank you, Henna, this is a good way to continue the conversation that began more than 50 years ago! Lisa made a great point that for one reason or another, so many women make the decision to start a business, consult, or find other avenues with which to lead. Avoiding the C-suites gives many of us flexibility and potential for following our own paths in our interests and needs. The goal for many of us has nothing to do with being a CEO, but for being a leader in our communities and providing opportunities for other women to reach their goals through mentoring and fundraising. It’s not a matter of being ambivalent about our goals, it’s about having different goals & priorities, right? Those are my goals, and I can’t imagine I’m alone in my desire to avoid engaging in the Good Old Boy network here in Montana, I’d rather circumvent them by empowering women to choose their own paths and not follow in the footsteps of male leaders.

    • Henna

      Hi Sarah – Thanks for joining the conversation.

      I agree with both you and Lisa. Women often do have different goals. And more power to you for getting clarity on your goals and pursuing them! Keep up the good work.


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