In the past two posts we have been talking about why we do not see more progress in the advancement of women in business , community and politics. In the first post we covered an overview of what is happening to slow down our progress. Much of what happens is subtle and not well understood. (Post May 24) In the second post we talked about the first barrier in more detail- the lack of career advocacy and targeted development for women. This lack of advocacy is not because anyone is setting out to exclude women, but because of subtle organizational and human habits and bias. ( Post June 3)
Todays post is about the second barrier- the lack of visible female role models. This barrier is also not well understood and often very very underestimated in it’s power. In all the work I have done in organizations that have undertaken an effort to understand and impact the gender diversity of it’s leadership ranks- the lack of visibility is a barrier and also an answer to acceleration of progress. We , as humans, instinctively look for role models . We look for individuals we can observe, learn from and emulate. We look for those who’s path we might follow. In the end we forge our own unique path but it is most often comprised of a mosaic of the experiences of others.
In most organizations the leadership ranks are still very male. Women do not imagine themselves in roles that have historically been male. In addition, the organizational leaders have an image of “the type of leader” that is “right” for this role. Organizational leaders are often as subject to their unconscious bias and experience as the women observing the roles. The roles and execution of the responsibility of the roles often have a masculine stamp of sorts. Women often do not consider these roles on their potential list of ultimate aspirations. Often they are not aware of the limitations they have set forth or why they have done so. There are of course women who strive to be the first, to be the one that breaks the barrier and provides a new vision of how the role might be executed. If we rely exclusively on these women to be the force that provides the diversity in leadership that our communities and organizations need, we will be on a very slow path. A path that is much too slow for the impact needed.
I was reminded of the impact of self- selection in a personal situation I experienced. I was nominated for the executive board of our organization. There had only been one other woman nominated in the history of the organization. One of the more senior women leaders who had , prior to this, been skeptical of targeted efforts to increase the numbers of women in the leadership ranks, approached me. She shared with me that she was very impacted by my name on the candidate roster. She realized she had never considered a position on the board as a possibility and therefore it was not a goal. Seeing my name caused her to think deeply about why she had never considered this. She now believed that possibly one day , she might be a candidate. The most stunning aspect of this encounter was the fact that she was not someone who would previously have believed she was impacted by the lack of women in leadership roles. She had unconsciously selected herself off the candidate list and was not aware she had done so.
I have personally seen the ripple effect of visible female role models on the progress of women in an organization. In organizations that do not have many role models, it is possible to connect the emerging female leaders with networks outside the organization to expose them to role models and possibilities of success not immediately apparent. These efforts have a huge , exponential impact. Women begin to believe, imagine, aspire to roles they have not considered in the past. I have seen women who had convinced themselves they could not succeed in certain roles due to the manner in which the roles had been executed. All of the role models were male and the emerging female leaders could not authentically execute the role in a similar manner. In several cases I have seen dramatic change in aspirations in women who have access to one female leader in a role that had previously been held by all men. Immediately they can envision a different , more authentic path for themselves that now includes a role they had previously written off.
Many senior women leaders do not wish to be role models . This is a common issue and after spending time in many many organizations where this is the case, I understand the reasons behind this. Watch for this discussion in a future post. For today it is important we understand that as women leaders we do not get to choose our role model status. We are role models by virtue of our presence and our success. Because we are in positions of power and have accomplished some level of success, others are looking to us for clues to a successful style approach, career-life integration strategies, ability to handle politics , and more. Most important we must understand that the impact of our presence is real and powerful. Our visibility as female leaders creates real , tangible change in the organizations and communities we live in. You make a difference by just by being who you are and the manner in which you live your roles.
Mary L Bennett ; mlbennettconsulting.com