Jennifer Wilson
Four factors keep women out of leadership positions

Family life, free expression issues, and fashion—yes, fashion—play key roles.

April 29, 2013
By Jennifer Wilson

Women are better leaders than men.

That was the main finding of A Study of Leadership, a 2012 research report from Zenger/Folkman based on the organization’s survey of 7,280 leaders in high-performing companies worldwide. The study asked respondents to rank men and women leaders in 16 competencies. Despite men accounting for 64% of the managers, peers, direct reports, and others who participated in the poll, women earned higher marks in 12 of the 16 categories—among them taking initiative and driving results, two areas in which traditional thinking would have expected men to be superior.

And yet, women continue to be under-represented in leadership positions. The Zenger/Folkman survey found that women held only 22% of top management, executive, or senior team positions, and only a third of the jobs that reported to top management or supervised middle managers.

Within the accounting profession, women have accounted for roughly 50% of new CPAs during the past 20 years, but they hold only 9% of the CFO jobs with companies and 21% of the partnership positions with accounting firms (see AICPA Gender Issues and Business Case). So, if women are better than—or, at the very least, comparable to—men in leadership roles, why haven’t more women climbed the ladder to the top couple of rungs?

There are many possible answers to this long-standing, complex question. But as I have been pondering this, I have come down to four “big” reasons that I believe contribute to the unequal representation of women leaders. Man or woman, you might not like them all. Here goes:

  • Family life represents a difficult conflict of interest for many women. Women who choose to “settle down” with a spouse or significant other and begin a family face a very challenging dilemma. To maintain a home, keep groceries stocked, laundry current, child care and school commitments straight, and ensure that their family members feel loved and nurtured, many women find that the time and energy that they have for their careers begin to diminish. Most women who face this conflict believe that they have to be a success at home because it feels more “life and death” to them. They may not feel they can truly win at home AND at work.

    I am a believer in having it all—the successful marriage, family, career, and self—but you have to give up on the idea that each element will be “perfect.” You have to accept that one of these elements may be out of balance with the others at any given time. When women lack support and begin to “fail” in their personal and/or professional lives, most pull back at work, taking themselves off the growth path to senior leadership.

  • Most women don’t express themselves freely with their superiors at work. Many high-potential women I meet believe that to get ahead they need to be low maintenance, “get along” with everyone, and keep their head down. Women are notoriously poor negotiators when it comes to their own compensation, and they often don’t ask for the things they need to support the proper integration of their home and work lives.

    To get ahead, women must begin to be extremely communicative about their priorities, challenges, and needs with their work and their families to enroll others in supporting them in getting ahead. Further, most business leaders are looking for their up-and-coming men and women to speak up, share ideas, have opinions, and offer strategies and solutions. It is through this dialogue that current leaders can gauge their future leaders. Women who stay quiet minimize their influence and potential to get ahead.
  • Women who do express themselves freely or lead successfully often are torn down. A Northwestern University meta-analysis indicated that leadership continues to be viewed as a more masculine role. A BusinessNewsDaily article about the analysis quoted the researchers as saying “Women are viewed as less qualified or natural in most leadership roles … and secondly, when women adopt the culturally masculine behaviors often required by these roles, they may be viewed as inappropriate or presumptuous."

    In my experience, women are supportive of one another unless a strong woman emerges. In that instance, the strong woman leader often finds that the support they had from many of their fellow women dissipates. Further, many men I meet associate a strong, opinionated woman with some negative experience they have had in the past—with a female authority figure growing up, a family member, a prior co-worker, or otherwise. This prior association has them hear the “new” female leader’s ideas and expressions through a more negative filter, and those men then work to minimize their exposure to her. With most senior leadership teams or partner groups, it takes only one or two men feeling this way about a female leader to inhibit her upward mobility.
  • Women don’t always dress the part. To influence others in business, you have to project a polished, confident, and professional image. Many women fail to achieve this because we fall into the “trendy trap.” For instance, right now, designers and retailers are selling essentially two main types of “professional” shoes for women—either 4-inch spike heels or “ballet” flats. Neither choice projects professional confidence and competence. Coat lengths, colors, button sizes, and other wardrobe styles for women can vary dramatically each year. Most of these fluctuating elements do not convey the best image, and many are unflattering, too. Men’s selections for professional wear may vary slightly each year, but their choices all seem to stick to more classic styles year after year. Hair styles, jewelry, and other accessories can all range radically with women, while our male counterparts have fewer choices, making for a safer bet that their choices will project an accepted leadership image.

These four inhibitors are what I see most often in my work with firms and teams. But to make any strides for women and leadership in your firm, you’ll need to first understand the unique challenges that women leaders face. Engage both men and women in your firm in an open dialogue to discuss the possible roadblocks in the career paths of women. Consider ways that both men and women can change their expectations, their communication habits and styles, and their mindsets toward one another; and at the same time enhance their overall image. Then, develop one or two concrete changes to implement in 2013. When you do, you’ll begin to take full advantage of the benefits of having the well-balanced leadership competencies of both men and women guiding your firm into the future.

Editor’s note: Wilson will lead an “Unconference” session titled Women’s Leadership: A Candid Conversation at the 2013 Practitioners Symposium and Tech+ Conference in Partnership with the Association for Accounting Marketing Summit, to be held June 10-12 in Las Vegas (pre-conference sessions on June 9).

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Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencecoaching.com.