When you do an image search on Google for “CEO,” the first female image that you will see is of CEO Barbie.
Not something that makes me entirely happy. While half of today’s workforce is women, only 1/5 of board-level or senior-level positions are held by women. Why is that? And how can we all work together to create change within an organization to improve that?
On April 15th, St. Catherine’s University and Twin Cities Business magazine hosted a Women in Corporate Leadership luncheon. The panel included four local CEOs who have dealt with women in leadership issues throughout various stages of their careers, and how each of their industries and companies are trying to provide more opportunities for women to take on senior leadership positions.
While there were a ton of great thoughts, statistics and personal stories on how women and men have had to deal with this issue, the themes that resonated with me include the following:
Diversity in Thinking
Why would you want to work with people who think exactly the same way that you do? Instead of looking at diversity as something that you have to do, think of the advantages that it brings to the table. If everyone thinks the same and has the same background, why would your ideas be any different? It’s been proven over and over again that having diversity improves performance because it provides diversity in the problems, ideas and, most importantly, the solutions that are brought to the table.
CEO of Thrivent Financial, Brad Hewitt, was a brave man for both participating on the panel and sitting in a room with hundreds of successful women. One point he had is that we all have to admit that we have unconscious biases. Everyone has them and we don’t even know what they exist. The best approach to dealing with those biases is to provide training and communication techniques to handle them. Not to eliminate them. I mean – after all – you don’t know they exist. But approaches on how to communicate with each other when we feel that these are included in our workforce. Sometimes admitting that we don’t always have the answer is the first step towards solving the larger problem.
The Term “Bossy”
I’ve been called this and worst things many times in my career. It has always bugged me and I sit at home wondering how I could have been “nicer” in the situation. But the truth is – every person at a senior level needs to make tough decisions that may not always be the popular decision. When decisions are made or tough conversations need to be had, many times women leaders are labeled as “bossy” or “too tough.” Penny Wheeler, CEO of Allina Health Systems, made a really great point that if you are liked by everyone, then you are doing something wrong. However, the manner in which you communicate and handle those decisions is what impacts the perception of your leadership style. The perception that women need to act in the same manner as a man in a senior position is wrong and women need to be able to find their own voice without the pressure of being compared to others.
Work / Life Balance
It’s a classic and I knew that it would come up. This ongoing balance between work and home is never something that will go away especially in the agency world. All of the women panelist agreed that it’s not about having it all even though many people can accomplish that. It’s about the choices that you make in your life that determine how you will handle the balance and finding the vision of what you see your life as. As long as you are following your vision, then you don’t need to worry about balance because you are always focused on your most important goal.
Finally, everyone in the room seemed to agree on one major point. In order for true change to occur, it needs to be a cultural shift within each organization to make an effort to address diversity in leadership positions and work through the issues or hard conversations to get there. It starts with an organization making an effort to change and not stopping when the going gets tough. Only when we all work together to promote, encourage, challenge and accept women in leadership positions, then we will start to see real change.
Overall, it was an interesting afternoon full of really great ideas on how to improve this “problem” over time. All of the points resonated to one overlying factor – while all corporations should have a strategy in place on how to deal with this, it’s the small steps along the way that are going to make a significant impact to improve this over time.