Myths That Prevent Gender Parity in Leadership

Have you come face-to-face with any of the prevailing myths about women in the workplace?

Last month I interviewed Analiza Wolf, the author of The Myths of Success: A Woman of Color’s Guide to Leadership. Analiza’s book, and our conversation, focused on the myths we women, buy into that hinder our growth as leaders.

Not too long ago, I was listening to an episode on The McKinsey Podcast, produced by McKinsey & Company. The episode was titled Busting myths about women in the workplace.

Interesting. Not myths that we women hold about ourselves. Rather, the myths that are held about women in the workplace in general.

Then recently I came across an article by Gallup titled The Path to Gender Parity in Leadership, published March 8, 2024. This article complimented and added to the information shared on The McKinsey Podcast. I found the topic of myths about women all so fascinating that I wanted to share it with you.

Click the play button to listen to the podcast episode.

Myths About Women in the Workplace

Myth #1: The belief that ambition among women has decreased over time.

I think this myth gained some steam during the pandemic when so many women left the workforce. Women left the workforce largely due to a lack of childcare and eldercare that largely fell to women to absorb. Also, a good percentage of women left their jobs due to burnout.  

The Reality: Research findings indicate that women’s ambition has not waned; instead, it has grown, especially during the pandemic. Statistics show that 80% of women express a desire for promotions, a percentage comparable to that of men. Notably, younger women, particularly those under 30, exhibit high levels of ambition, with many aspiring to reach top leadership positions. Women of color, in particular, demonstrate significant ambition in their careers.

Men and women generally concur on factors that either encourage or deter them from pursuing high-level positions. However, for women, a requirement of being available outside of regular working hours is more likely to dissuade them from aspiring to a leadership role.

Recommendation: The data underscores the importance of fostering an environment that supports and nurtures women’s ambition. Providing flexibility in the working model, such as remote work options, has played a significant role in empowering women to pursue their career goals. Emphasizing and amplifying women’s ambition can lead to greater diversity and inclusivity in leadership roles.

Myth #2: The misconception that flexibility in the workplace is primarily sought after by women.

The Reality: Both men and women value workplace flexibility, with 80% expressing that they are most productive when they have focused time, whether working remotely or in-person. [Insert fewer and shorter meetings here.] The pandemic has highlighted the importance of flexibility, leading to a shift in mindset among employees and organizations.

Recommendation: It’s essential to recognize that flexibility benefits everyone, regardless of gender. Exploring various flexible work arrangements beyond traditional remote work, such as flexible hours and hybrid models, can contribute to a more inclusive and adaptable work culture.

And, I want to harken back to the last episode on pay equity with Emilie Aries. Changes that benefit one group, typically benefit all groups.  

Myth #3: The perception that the glass ceiling is the primary barrier preventing women from advancing in their careers.

The Reality: While the glass ceiling remains a challenge, the “broken rung” at the entry level into management positions presents a more significant obstacle. This broken rung disproportionately affects women, particularly women of color, leading to slower progress and fewer opportunities for advancement. And I’ll add, the overall pay disparity between women and men.

According to research done by Gallup, both women and men show increasing interest in leadership roles as they are promoted. This indicates that with experience in managing teams, individuals tend to develop greater confidence in their leadership capabilities, making leadership positions appear more attainable to them.

Recommendation: Companies must implement strategies to address the broken rung issue by focusing on early promotions and creating a diverse talent pipeline from the start of women’s careers. This includes providing mentorship, sponsorship, and support to help women navigate their career paths successfully.

Myth #4: The belief that microaggressions have a minimal impact on women’s careers.

The Reality: Microaggressions, although seemingly minor, have a significant cumulative impact on women’s experiences in the workplace. These everyday slights contribute to feelings of imposter syndrome, undermine confidence, and can lead to burnout and a desire to leave the organization.

Recommendation: Building awareness and fostering allyship are crucial in addressing microaggressions. Creating an environment where individuals feel supported and empowered to speak up against microaggressions can contribute to a more inclusive and respectful workplace culture.

I will also add to this recommendation, a culture of accountability is also required. It’s one thing to feel empowered and encouraged to speak up. It’s another thing to be heard and have issues address in a timely and fair manner.

In a moment I’m going to cover some guidance for future leaders and for organizations.  

Guidance for future leaders

Use Data and Stay Committed: Leaders are advised not to become complacent with aggregate numbers or make excuses for existing disparities. Instead, they should utilize data, delve deep into the issues, and approach them with the same intensity and dedication as they would with sales, operations, or growth opportunities.

Measure and Analyze: Specifically regarding the “broken rung” issue, leaders are encouraged to measure and analyze it at a granular level, team by team, and promotion by promotion. Conducting postmortems and thoroughly examining the data can reveal insights and areas for improvement.

Persist and Challenge Structural Obstacles: For young women and junior professionals, the advice is twofold. First, they should not be discouraged by the lack of representation at the top but instead persist in their efforts to effect change. Second, they should use data and facts to challenge structural biases and obstacles in the system. This involves asking tough questions, seeking opportunities for growth, and holding organizations accountable for addressing inequities.

Guidance for organizations to promote women in leadership roles.

Clarify Leadership Potential Criteria: Organizations should define clear criteria for determining “leadership potential” and critically review qualifications and evaluation criteria for leadership roles.

Hold Leaders Accountable: Leaders should be held accountable for developing the next generation by providing opportunities for learning and growth. This includes participation in leadership training and challenging experiences.

Listen and Act: Implement a comprehensive listening strategy to understand the needs and ambitions of employees, especially women, and prioritize initiatives that promote their advancement.

Flexibility for High-Performing Employees: Establish flexible work policies to meet the needs of high-performing employees, particularly focusing on work-life balance and personal well-being.

Address Childcare Crisis: Organizations should find ways to support employees affected by the childcare crisis, as women are disproportionately impacted by family responsibilities.

Consider Changing Workforce Expectations: As organizations seek to fill leadership roles and diversify talent, they should consider the changing expectations and needs of the workforce, aiming to benefit all employees.

These actions can help organizations promote gender diversity in leadership roles and create a supportive and inclusive work environment. I think that’s something we can all get behind.

Thank you!

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