Women Who ‘Lean In’ Often Face Leadership Roadblocks

Women Who ‘Lean In’ Often Face Leadership Roadblocks

It’s a growing refrain that women aren’t climbing the leadership ladder because they’re not leaning in or lack confidence. In reality, however, the major career obstacle is senior managers and boards who choose not to promote them and exclude them from the leadership dialogue.

The May 2014 Atlantic cover story “The Confidence Gap” argues that men succeed because they are more self-assured. And Lean In, written by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, suggests women need to step up. In my own article, “LinkedIn: The #1 Career Tool Women are Missing Out On,” I also take women to task for avoiding that social network. But for many career-focused professional women that I know, confidence and ‘leaning in’ are not the issues that prevent them from advancing.

Women are leaning in, but the seat at the table is being pulled out from under them.

Take “Diana,” Chief Marketing Officer for a leading restaurant chain. She has ‘leaned in’ throughout her career.  She brings a much-desired combination of skills and education to her organization: classical CPG marketing credentials, international and domestic industry-specific experience, and a top-tier MBA.  Imagine how puzzled she was when, two months into her job as CMO, she was discouraged from participating in the weekly management update call and told to focus instead on what her CEO calls ‘frou-frou’ marketing.

And there’s also “Katherine,” who was the only female principal in a private equity firm. In 2009, which she describes as the worst year ever in investment banking, her managing principal informed her that her bonus would be minimal because ‘there is not much money in the till.  I have to pay the guys because they have families to support, and your husband has a good job.’  Despite her disagreement, she received a lower bonus.

These are cases of male senior management reneging on commitments and silencing diverse voices that could strengthen their firms. These stories resonate with many others I’ve seen in my role as a strategy management consultant working with management teams and executives of Fortune 500 firms. As the author of Tuning into Mom: Understanding America’s Most Powerful Consumer, I’ve spent years thinking about working moms, to understand their goals and aspirations. This isn’t a case of Diana or Katherine being less likely than a man to ask for a promotion, a seat at the leadership table, or fair pay.

The instances of qualified professional women being blocked are increasingly common. Starting in the mid to late 1990’s, the College Board has documented that more women have earned bachelors’ degrees than their male counterparts.  Along with attaining higher levels of educational achievement, women are also seeking more workplace responsibility.  According to a 2008 study by the Family Work Institute, women under 29 desired jobs with more responsibility at equal levels with their male counterparts.  Similarly, a recent 2013 McKinsey study of 1,421 executive women found that female executives are equally as ambitious as their male counterparts.

What does this mean for the workplace?

Today’s better-educated women aren’t content with being excluded from the senior management team.  Here are two suggestions for being more inclusive:

  1. There is an opportunity for progressive boards and management teams to promote women to leadership roles and seek to hear women’s voices in informal updates, rather than just in controlled formal presentations.
  2. Greater diversity of thinking is a sought-after component to good management.  To be sure, this diversity is important across multiple dimensions, with gender being just one element in the mix. And this thinking is important, not just at the board level and the C-level, but also in the line operating management.

“Melissa,” a former principal at a leading investment firm who spent seven years vying for a promotion that never came and then formed her own company, makes the point that women in leadership roles think and manage differently. For example, women often focus more on mentoring and collaboration. When deciding on career options, organizations that include women in leadership roles and have a culture of listening to diverse voices will attract better talent and achieve more marketplace success.

In the EU, a 40% percent quota for female directors by 2020 was established in 2013.  At the other end of the spectrum, the Chicago Tribune has called the US approach a ‘glacial pace,’ and estimated that it will be 2084 before women achieve equal representation in the executive ranks of Chicago’s largest companies.

It’s 2014. As a country and as a culture, we must move women forward into executive ranks to maintain our edge in a world where diverse opinions are more important than ever to success.


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  • I'm afraid that without names (first/last), placed, dates and companies, your examples of women being stepped on and abused by males is not credible. Not if you want us to believe (sigh) that government intervention is necessary. As it is, white women have benefited the most from Affirmative Action.

    In addition, do you think it is only women who do not get the big ranking position? No, it's beta males, other alpha males, men the Big Guy does not like and just complete FU's.. Just because some of your examples reported they were the "best" does not make it so.

    There is another rumbling that often comes up. Many women do not want to have another woman as a boss. That is not my opinion, but based on many surveys.

    Do you think most companies are going to cut their nose off despite their face, and say, yes, we know Ms. X can bring this to the table, ramp profits up 20% and lower costs, but...she's...a woman, and we can't have that. Green is the bottom line.

    Lean harder.

  • Yes, I agreed with the fact that women aren't climbing leadership ladder due to lack of confidence and lack of opportunities. We well-known with the fact that this is a male dominating society where women are getting little chance to develop their personal skills and strategies. So, they need right guidance and support to improve their personality and leadership attitude. This article also describes certain facts about how to develop leadership skills and attitude especially among women and I hope while following these instructions, they are capable to improved their leadership skills.
    Leadership Coach

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    Michal Clements

    Michal is co-author of Tuning Into Mom and an experienced consultant. Michal develops winning growth strategies and detailed go to market plans for some of the world’s outstanding organizations including McDonald’s, Gatorade, Abbott, Barilla, Tylenol, Clorox, Key Bank, Eagle Ottawa, Quaker and the Baker Demonstration School.

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