Gathering the Glass Ceiling Data

Evelyn Orr has spent the last seven years working with leadership research at Korn Ferry Institute. Now a senior director, she has translated that research into practical resources for leaders and organizations, authoring publications on leadership skills and development and offering tips and advice. But as a woman, an area of research that hits particularly close to home is women in leadership.

Orr spoke with Diversity Executive about the challenges female leaders face, and the ways to overcome them. Below are edited excerpts from her interview.

What are some key challenges that you’ve found that women face regarding leadership in the workplace?
Obviously, a primary challenge women face is gender bias. In a recent Newsweek article, Shanley Kane highlights the “brogrammer” culture of Silicon Valley and observes the factors that drive women out of the tech industry. “I don’t have a lot of advice,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot you can do to keep your career from being crushed by misogyny.”

Evelyn Orr, Korn Ferry
Evelyn Orr, Korn Ferry

But like most things in life, there are things we can’t control and things we can. I will focus on some key challenges that women can do something about.

Getting experience. Experiences build skill and prepare people for bigger, more challenging roles. Our research shows that women have had fewer business growth, operational and high-visibility experiences that provide crucial preparation for top jobs. Whether this experience gap is caused by women not being offered these experiences or women not seeking out these experiences, it is an obstacle to career progression.

Building confidence. Our research shows a confidence gap between men and women. All things being equal, when men and women have the same skills women tend to underestimate themselves and men tend to overestimate themselves. Additionally, women attribute success to external factors while men attribute success to their own abilities.

Not compromising values or key motivators. Korn Ferry research shows that women are highly motivated by challenging work, a collaborative workplace and meaningful accomplishments. Compared to their male counterparts, they tend to be less motivated by power and status. To the extent that women see executive roles being defined by power and status rather than opportunities for greater challenge, collaboration and accomplishment, they will be less drawn to executive roles.

What can be done — by both employers and women themselves — to overcome these challenges?
Employers and women have a shared responsibility for overcoming these gaps in the workplace. Here are a few recommendations:

Tap into what motivates high potential women. Reframe experiences and roles in terms of the challenge, the opportunity to collaborate and the chance to accomplish great things.

Offer women the right skill-building and high-visibility experiences that will develop their careers. Help women say yes to these experiences — tough experiences build skill and confidence.

Get women access to executives through mentoring and networking programs. Opportunities naturally arise for men to fraternize with other men. Employers may need to be more proactive and thoughtful to create forums for male executives to build relationships with high potential women.

Besides breaking the glass ceiling, what would be the benefits to more women in leadership roles in companies?
Financial benefits. Companies that employ a critical mass of women in top leadership positions and appoint women to their boards perform better.

Company culture. Women are rated higher than their male counterparts in seventeen critical leadership skills including operating and interpersonal skills, courage, and drive — competencies that enable women to connect with customers, engage employees and build talent. These are skills that shape company culture which in turn helps attract and engage talent.

Close the leadership gap. Survey after survey shows that CEOs and top executives are concerned about the leadership and talent gap between what companies need and what is available. Women are an under-tapped talent pool — they earn at least half of the higher degrees and represent half of the professional workforce.

Why is this particular area of research important to you?
I get the sense that the vast majority of companies and executives are interested in changing the status quo but may not know where to start. I think it’s especially helpful to search for trends and clues in data — it’s an objective approach that takes the blame out of the conversation and focuses on solutions.

And, as a woman, I have a vested interest as I am actively developing my own leadership skills and steering my career. The findings in the research resonate with my experience and those of my colleagues.