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How To Get More Women To The Top

If CEOs want to put more women in senior leadership positions, they first have to understand the problem, and then give them the resources they need.

Leadership training for women is a big business representing millions of dollars in corporate programming, generating wide coverage in the media, and bringing together thousands of attendees at annual industry and women’s networking events designed to get more women to the top. There’s no shortage of advice on how to get a seat at the table, negotiate a new title and raise, manage teams, find mentors and sponsors and generally “lean in.”

But a new survey, “Women in 2020: Choosing to Move Up the Career Ladder—Or Not?” reveals that all the leadership “how to” is the cart before the horse. This national survey of women ages 35 to 55 reveals that most are not aiming for top jobs. In fact, the majority of women in the age 35 to 44 age group—the critical pipeline for female senior leaders—say they’ve reached their career goals and do not intend to advance further.

At a time when women are expected to do their part to empower their gender, this data suggests an alarming complacency among the female ranks. But the survey data says otherwise. The preference to “grow in place” is not because women are ambivalent about professional work: despite Covid-19 challenges that pitched women into a quagmire of working and caring for children at the same time, 75% of women are still very committed to professional careers.

The reason most women are content at their current level is a simply a practical matter. Women report that higher titles and compensation are secondary to having more time to care for family and overall work-life balance. Asked hypothetically whether they’d accept a two-year assignment with a bigger title and less time for family, survey respondents were neutral—citing only a 50% chance they would jump at the opportunity to rise.

It’s not surprising that the survey cites pressures at home as the reason women don’t look to take on greater work responsibilities. What is surprising: data sheds light on households that do not appear to have changed much since times when women only had responsibilities at home. Now working women shoulder the greatest responsibility for as many as four big jobs—their professional roles, plus managing households (71% of responsibility), and caring for children (67%) and aging parents/in-laws (71%). Overall, the survey challenges the perception that today’s young men pitch in much more than their fathers did. The youngest women surveyed (ages 35 to 44) includes the tail end of the millennials (now ages 23 to 39) and data suggested no significant difference in the support provided by younger or older male partners.

Though women are stretched thin by responsibilities at home, the survey shows that they put on a good face in the corporate setting. Employers think “no news is good news” because in the workplace women silence their work-life concerns and appear instead to be fully on board with leadership training. A dramatic survey finding is that the majority of women at both mid and senior levels strongly or somewhat believe most women would be more apt to say they weren’t given opportunities to advance than admit they really didn’t want the added responsibility.

The Women in 2020 survey clearly points out that work-life support—not additional leadership training dollars—would give more women the bandwidth to consider moving up the career ladder. Women say they want and need employers to be proactive in providing resources and “safe spaces” for work-life problem-solving and shared best practices. The demand is amplified by added pressures of the Covid-19 crisis—piling on to already deficient employer support before the pandemic sent all workers home:

• Women who have figured out how to take on positions of power haven’t given other women “best practices” for blending work, family and life. Only 57% of those surveyed describe women in power as helpful, and only 42% describe them as compassionate. More than two thirds of total respondents feel resentful that women in power aren’t doing what would be necessary to help other women rise.

• Employers don’t have enough training to help women blend work and life. Only 20% of women surveyed say their companies offer leadership training resources that focus specifically on easing the work-life struggle.

• Employers don’t provide enough opportunities for women to help other women manage time-consuming work-life situations. Only 15% of those surveyed have an internal women’s networking group, and only 6% have a parenting employee resource group.

Human resources professionals know that managing just a professional job requires many tools, tips and strategies to help employees progress toward senior-level roles. When women layer on three more jobs—for children, aging parents and households—the need for resources multiplies. Employers don’t want to be in the business of managing the personal lives of employees, but most do acknowledge that reducing worry about non-work issues (through, for example, the many corporate-sponsored financial management and health/wellness programs) means greater work productivity and commitment. The Women in 2020 survey points out that encouraging discussion on strategies for eldercare, household management, time management, tutoring, summer programs, the college application process—all the work-life demands that distract and overwhelm high-potential employees—are the necessary first step and foundation to get more women to buy in and set their sights for the top.

On-Line Survey Methodology

The Women in 2020 survey was conducted April 29 to May 4, 2020 by Decision Analyst, a research and analytical consulting firm serving major corporations, advertising agencies and marketing consultancies in the Americas, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The firm consistently ranks among the top 5 research agencies in the U.S.

The 15-minute, online survey used the American Consumer Opinion panel and affiliates sample source, and reflects input from 307 respondents within a national representation of the United States. The sample included women in the 35 to 55 age demographic (with a breakdown of 49% aged 35 to 44 and 51% aged 45 to 55) who are college graduates and are employed full-time (87%) or part-time (13%). The majority of respondents (59%) are at the mid-professional level, and 41% are at the upper level.


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