Rewriting the Rules of Success for Women in Corporate Leadership

Jenna Fisher

Jenna Fisher is an author and leadership advisor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her upcoming new book, To the Top: How Women in Corporate Leadership are Rewriting the Rules for Success, is about the importance of gender equity in business leadership. In this article, she shares insights about improving representation in the workplace.

Why do diversity, equity, and inclusion matter?

The concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is so much more than a business buzzword. For traditionally under-represented groups like women and people of color, those three little letters represent a big step in overcoming a long, painful history of workplace discrimination.

The DEI movement is about welcoming everyone into the workplace, including into the sacred space of the C-suite. When people see executives who look like they do, it’s easier to picture being there, too. Representation matters

The pace of DEI is accelerating, but not fast enough. According to the World Economic Forum, the world will wait another 132 years to achieve full gender parity in leadership roles at its current pace.

There’s still a disparity in the market that needs to be acknowledged. Women comprise 51% of the population but hold a paltry percentage of upper-level management positions.

Consider these figures from Russell Reynolds Associates on the state of diversity in the top 100 largest companies in the S&P 500. 

Women represent:

  • 9% of CEO seats
  • 10% of COO seats
  • 18% of CFO seats
  • 21% of CIO/CTO seats
  • 47% of CMO seats
  • 67% of CHRO seats 

RRA’s analysis found the lack of equity at the top of organizations isn’t due to a lack of diverse talent entering the workforce (women, after all, represent 47% of the US workforce). It’s due to a lack of equity in assessing, developing, and promoting talent. 

In fact, in its Divides and Dividends research, RRA found 61% of C-suite leaders agreed that it is easier for men to get promoted than women (regardless of their capability and performance). 

A further 63% said that senior leaders in their organization show a bias or favoritism towards those like them.

It’s not benevolence. It’s good business.

Have you noticed that skills like communication, emotional intelligence, and empathy are increasingly considered crucial in today’s corporate cultures? Today’s leaders often need to flex their approach and lead from the middle. Traditional, myopic leadership styles are continuing to prove unhelpful in many of the scenarios teams and companies face in today’s corporate landscape. 

Many of the traditional biases and barriers that have hamstrung female leaders are slowly falling by the wayside. Women can be CEOs. Men can be caregivers. Anyone of any background can serve as an inspiration and change the world.

For example, many women have found great inspiration to authentically lead from Sheryl Sandberg’s famous book Lean In. Sandberg encourages women to embrace the characteristics that make them outstanding leaders. Still, as one of my team members once quipped, “I’m leaning in so hard I’m falling over.” In my experience, this point is an important reminder that women cannot do it alone. 

Men and companies must also bear this weight. Together, we have a shared responsibility to welcome everyone into all levels of leadership and provide the support they need to succeed.

What can you do about it?

So, let’s get tangible and actionable. What are some ways organizations can get more women into their companies’ executive leadership roles and onto their board of directors – and create a more inclusive environment that women can thrive in?

First, although younger women want and need these changes, it is incumbent upon more established C-suite executives and board members to actually make these changes happen. 

Seize the opportunity in front of you. Organizations (and their leaders) face a once-in-a-generation opportunity to accelerate progress toward parity and get more women at the top. It’s not good enough to wait 130-plus years to close the equality gap. 

We need to do better now. And we can do better – for the benefit of business, women, and the world.

Walk the talk.

Build diversity targets into hiring decisions, and tether managers’ hiring and retention successes to their bonuses. Make it a must-have, not a nice-to-have. And put your money where your mouth is by investing in more training and outreach to recruit and retain women.

Question your definitions of great leadership. The leadership traits that worked in the past will not help your organization in the future. We all have ingrained unconscious biases: for example, is a lack of “gravitas” a fair criticism, or is she just not tall enough to match your expectations? Recognize that these biases exist – and how they hold you back.

Think outside the box.

Make bold hiring decisions to infuse your organization with more diversity. Be open to appointing or promoting people who do not check all the boxes. As Amy Bunszel, EVP of software giant Autodesk, said, “Position specifications are wish lists.”

No matter your gender, minority status, or position within your company, there are things you can do to promote inclusion in the workplace. Changes don’t have to be earth-shattering to be worthwhile. Incremental impacts build up to seismic changes. Time and time again, I find myself reminding dynamic female leaders that confidence is key. You need to embrace your whole self and remember you have the skills needed to be successful. 

Look for small ways you can change the company rules and norms to be more inclusive. That’s why the full title of my book is, To the Top: How Women in Corporate Leadership Are Rewriting the Rules for Success.

In a broader sense, view your entire career arc as more of a web than a ladder. Work together, collectively with others, to build a strong network of personal and professional connections.

Avoid perfectionism.

This is an easy trap to fall into—particularly for working mothers. Remember: you don’t have to run full speed ahead every moment of every single day to keep your career on track. Find ways to stay in the workforce (if that matches your vision) as it’s often difficult to return to a prosperous and challenging career after a long, extended period not working outside the home. Embrace today’s flexible environment and find an employer who has shared values around having both a thriving family and career.  

Additionally, you can directly contribute to enhanced diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives by hiring and promoting leaders around potential growth opportunities over a discrete set of limiting criteria or experiences. 

Also, consider scenarios to retain talented individuals who are strong culture fits, even if that means further developing their skills or moving them to another role or department. In this season of talent shortage it’s imperative to keep the people we’ve invested in and who have made meaningful contributions to our companies. The loss of the best talent is not only unfortunate for leaders, but it is a loss to GDP and the market cap of these companies. 

Finally, the list of rules and recommendations for women in leadership often borders on the absurd. “Do this. Don’t do that. Never say this or that.” Yes, there are always helpful things we can glean from others. However, it’s paramount to keep what’s helpful and discard the rest. 

Lean into authenticity with your leadership.

Diversity benefits everyone.

Your perspective matters. Diversity of thought and experience can help everyone. Plus, it’s good for business.

Opportunity abounds. Now’s the time to seize the opportunities that surface from today’s more flexible work environment. Utilize the results and benefits of DEI initiatives to influence and make a positive impact on your company and in the world.

About Jenna Fisher

Jenna Fisher is an author and leadership advisor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more than 20 years, Jenna has served key roles in recommending candidates for more than 400 CFO and board-level positions. She works as a consultant for the widely-respected leadership advisory company Russell Reynolds Associates. Jenna graduated with honors from Rice University and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She attended Duke University Law School and studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Her new book To the Top: How Women in Corporate Leadership Are Rewriting the Rules for Success is due out in March 2023 and describes how the business world is facing a historic opportunity to finally close the gender gap. It’s a playbook for addressing gender and representation issues for a new generation.

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