It’s hardly a newsflash that the C-suite is under-inhabited by women. What’s not talked about nearly enough is the challenges C-suite women face. They are real; they are daunting and they grow right along with career advancement. Here are four of the most common—and most troubling—ones.
“It’s lonely at the top;” and even lonelier for women. Senior-level women endure the same
isolation problems as their male colleagues. Too few people with whom to brainstorm. Little or no opportunities to vent. Safe havens that are few and far between. What makes isolation even more intense for women leaders is, as a rule, they have been more isolated than their male colleagues on the way up. Having not been part of the culturally-ingrained Old Boy network, they have even fewer anti-isolation outlets than their male C-suite neighbors.
- Relationship Deficits
The lack of meaningful relationships for women starts early and stays late. Men are much more likely to forge relationships with mentors, networks and sponsors early in their careers. Women have a tendency to go with a “keep my nose to the grindstone…do it myself” approach. As a result they don’t seek out the people who can advise, guide and support them; and they tend to continue that pattern to their own detriment. When they reach higher levels in the organization, this scarcity of relationships not only results in fewer affiliations, it also can make women leaders less adept at de-coding the intricacies of high-level interactions with CEOs, board members and other C-suite colleagues.
- Risk Aversion
Becoming skilled at taking the right risks at the right time is an on-going challenge for female leaders. Throughout their careers, women tend to be more reluctant risk takers than their male colleagues. Understandably, that tendency becomes even more intensified when women reach the C-suite. A bad decision at their level can put them in the wrong kind of spotlight with far reaching negative consequences. On the other hand, not taking the right risk can mean side stepping opportunities that contribute substantially to corporate growth and profitability and to the visibility that comes with success. It’s a difficult-to-master balancing act.
- Insular Perceptions
Getting honest, reliable feedback is a career-long challenge for women. Research shows that, when providing feedback, male bosses and colleagues tend to stick to generalizations rather than career-advancing advice. For C-suite women, the problem gets worse. There are fewer people who want to “speak truth to power.” Additionally, senior level women often have not sought out feedback earlier in their career, making it even more difficult to ask for it in their C-suite roles. Here, more than ever, they perceive the need to get it right on their own. In other words, their perception of themselves is often the result of their talking to themselves. As a result, senior leaders are at a serious disadvantage in understanding the nuances of how their leadership role best meshes with corporate growth and profitability.
Taking on the challenges
Addressing and combating these challenges requires a two-pronged approach and involves not just the women themselves, but the organization as a whole.
First, women currently in C-suite positions must be willing to adapt and change. They must forge relationships internally and industry-wide that broaden their perspectives; and they must realize that both they and their organizations will suffer if they try to go it alone. Senior level women leaders need to develop on an ironclad willingness to attack old perceptions and push past ingrained behaviors. Their success at the top depends on it.
Second, top management, including current women leaders, must take a fresh look at how they are developing their female talent and whether they are starting early enough. How are they helping women at all career levels get past risk aversion? How are they formalizing relationship development? How are they helping managers provide honest, career-advancing feedback to the women on their teams? And how are they helping their female talent seek out that feedback?
Successfully overcoming these challenges faced by women currently in leadership roles, and by women aspiring to those roles, will mean not only more women in the C-suite. It will mean more C-suite women making their mark on corporate growth and profitability.
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