What’s Keeping Women From Rising?

Despite great progress, women still struggle to dominate the C-suite.

According to Forbes, just 4 percent of the nation’s top 500 companies have female CEOs. Moreover, research from global leadership services firm PDI Ninth House shows that the gap between male and female leaders also exists lower in organizations, with women making up only 20 percent of business-unit leaders and 28 percent at the mid-level.

The lack of women in leadership positions might seem counterintuitive, however, if one looks at claims that women have an advantage in this so-called post-command-and-control world because women tend to be better at “soft skills,” such as employee engagement and customer focus.

So why are they falling short?

PDI Ninth House took a shot at answering the question with a March study that examined 16 different competencies of 6,000 male and female leaders at the mid-level, business unit and senior executive levels.

Evaluations were based on the leaders’ behavior and responses during in-depth, simulation-based assessments. Example exercises within the simulation included prioritizing an overflowing inbox, dealing with an under-performing business area, developing strategies to grow the business, reacting to an unhappy customer, and coaching a direct report.

When taking the average of all competencies, the research revealed that women had an overall higher score than men. Since this female advantage did not correlate with an increase in the percentage of female leaders, researchers dug deeper into specific competencies to determine if there were gender differences.

Results indicated men ranked statistically higher in the specific competencies most often deemed critical at higher levels within an organization — those focused on financial acumen and thinking strategically.

By breaking down the data by participant job level, researchers found that the gaps between genders lessened at higher levels — but women consistently ranked higher on “softer” competencies, such as building collaboration, putting customers first, establishing relationships and building realistic plans.

To further understand how this fits into an organization’s overall development framework, the same study also examined the professional experiences of 6,000 managers and executives.

While men and women were equally likely to gain experience in self-development and challenging/difficult experiences, women had less experience in business growth, operational experiences and high-visibility experiences.

By far, high-visibility experiences — those that have the greatest impact across the organization — are the most important because they are essential for senior leaders. To understand why women lag their male counterparts in this area, researchers looked at motivators. The research showed that women are more interested in personal accomplishment and men favor influencing an organization and responsibilities for others in a unit.

For women, focusing only on the softer skills and personal accomplishment may be a career limiting move. While they may be excelling in their respective areas, their male counterparts are seeking out those high-visibility experiences that allow them to have more influence and visibility — such as running a business unit with a profit and loss — and they are developing financial and strategic skills.

On the other hand, staff roles often held by women — human resources and marketing — provide challenge and adversity, but not the full accountability for a business.

While softer skills are critically important to organizations, especially skills that center on client focus and employee engagement, organizations should work on ways to continue developing financial and strategic skills in female employees. Tactics may include creating a mentor or shadowing program that exposes interested employees to best practices.

Diversity leaders may need to work harder to encourage female leaders to reach out of their comfort zones and raise their hands for experiences that will ultimately lead them to higher levels within the organization. Organizations that do this will no doubt find women with strong leadership attributes who don’t traditionally seek the limelight.

Joy Hazucha is senior vice president of leadership research and analytics for PDI Ninth House. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.