Last weeks post introduced the barriers to the advancement of women. This week we concentrate on the lack of access to career development and advocacy. This issue is not very well understood in many organizations. It is however one of the most important if we care about diversity in our leadership ranks and advancement of all top talent. The issue of advocacy is often subtle and requires a close look at how individuals move through the organization. How do they advance? How are they visible? What is considered an increase in value delivered that puts one on “the map”. Many of the subtle but essential rules about how one advances in an organization are real but unwritten. As a result , it is critical that one have a guide in this journey of navigation.
Guidance and advocacy in the skill development and career advancement process is often missing for emerging female leaders. This is not because men are leaving them out deliberately or even consciously. In most organizations men are still in all of most of the positions of influence and power. Men are in most of the positions that represent deep knowledge of the unwritten rules. As humans, we often reach out to those who remind us of ourselves. Those we identify with. This is also true of natural mentor and protoge relationships. In many cases , senior leaders who are male, reach out to younger males as protoges. When asked, senior male leaders are often not aware that this is happening to a very great degree. When the question of why more emerging female leaders are not in their circle they often will say that they do not feel they can be a mentor to women, do not understand how to communicate or how do deal with specific issues such as career-life conflicts or female styles of leadership. In addition , networking events such as sports events or male bonding events such as “heading out for a drink” after work are often uncomfortable venues for senior male leaders and female protoges. Many senior male leaders have shared with me that they are also concerned others will assume inappropriate conclusions about mentoring relationships. These concerns all impact how many women have access to senior leadership in their organizations. So what?
Moving through an organization seeking advancement is a very real journey. This journey is one that requires a map, navigator or guide. It is also one that requires advocacy. As women we must think about what experiences we need to have to increase our skill level, our balance sheet of talent. We must first understand what the organization is looking for in its leaders. This is not always , in fact not often , written. A guide – mentor- helps us understand if we are on track. Once we know what we should be engaged in, we are not always in a position to acquire access to these experiences. In some cases, it is nearly impossible to broker committee assignments, over seas promotions, profit and loss responsibility on our own. Advocacy from those in positions of influence is required. Many emerging male leaders have mentors in senior leadership roles advocating on their behalf. Many emerging female leaders do not. This fact slows the progress of female leaders. It creates real difference , not only in the opportunities that women have access to but also real difference in their learning and skill development. While it may be heresy to post this next comment- it is true. When we hear that there were no female candidates for promotion that were qualified- it is sometimes true because the female candidates have not had the experiences needed to qualify them for the role.
What can we do as individuals and organizations? As individual female leaders we need to know that there is information we dont have and we must form relationships in senior levels to access this information. It can be difficult but it is essential. The good news is that we can get this information from multiple relationships and sources, and in fact we should. How hard we work and the quality of our work is not the only thing that matters. Is it the price of entry. We need to know if we are doing the right things and if the right people know we are doing the right things. The “right things” are those things recognized as having value to the organization.
Organizations that understand all of the above take a hard look at their assignment, promotion and advocacy processes. Uneven access to senior leadership can be addressed through awareness raising, mentor or sponsor programming and improved promotion processes.
Mary L Bennett, MLBennett Consulting