I think women are basically “immigrants” to the corporate and professional world, whose culture, systems and language have been designed by and for men, who remain resolutely in charge. While women have overpopulated colleges and universities, which have landed many at the mid-management level, few are called to partnerships, senior management, let alone CEO status. In a report just released by Corporate Women Directors International on Women Directors in the World’s Largest Banks, we found a higher percentage of board seats held by women (15.6%) in these financial institutions than the percentage of women in senior management (12.2%). In the U.S, this discrepancy is difficult to explain, since the majority of accounting degrees are earned by women and the majority of mid-level managers as well as employees in banks and financial services companies are also female.
The response to date is basically to fix the leadership gap by “fixing” the women through education in how to succeed in a male-dominated work culture. Teach them how to negotiate better, network wider internally and externally, communicate, work in teams, develop their personal branding, find a mentor, or a sponsor.
However, for real change benefiting women to occur, systemic change must take place as well. Europe has taken the lead in addressing this leadership gap by fixing the system for recruiting board directors through quotas. As a strategy, quotas have worked and the numbers of European female directors have increased.
Quota is a dirty word in the U.S., but there is a simple thing that can be done—to redefine achievement in terms of results as opposed to face time at the office. Flexibility is valued by male and female employees alike, so this change in where and how work is done can benefit everyone and not stigmatize women. This will lead to a change in work culture that will enable women to weave work and personal responsibilities together without gaps in their career that costs them in the long run.
What can universities do? Ideally, curricula should incorporate the skills training now done by companies or professional firms, so that women students are prepared earlier on. Women executives and successful entrepreneurs should be brought on campus as role models to share lessons learned and what is reachable. Cooperative programs where work experiences are integrated into a student’s course work should be encouraged. None of this happens, however, without an understanding on the part of university leadership that they are not only preparing students to be citizens of the world, but also for the world of work.
Do all you can to equip yourself to be a leader (get your “smarts” early).
Be observant of the organizational culture and the protocols. Get coaches, mentors, and sponsors—and do it early, often, and formally.