By Patricia Wheeler
It’s a fact….women make up over half the workforce. But only two in every 10 middle managers are women. And at every turn of the leadership pipeline on the way to a corner office, the number of women occupying leadership slots gets smaller and smaller. A recent McKinsey study found that only 14% of senior leaders and vice presidents are women.
With all that is going on in their busy lives, do women really want these top jobs? Could these numbers be a reflection that many women don’t want an executive career? Well, the answer is no. According to McKinsey, 83% of us actually do want to move up.
Given that women and men score similarly on most leadership competencies measured, what’s the problem? Given their skills and their desire to move up, why is it so hard for talented women to advance?
My colleague Nancy Parsons, CEO of CDR Assessment Group, gathered data on over 500 women leaders who took her excellent leadership style assessment over the last decade. She searched for trends to answer this question about advancement. She found that on the CDR Character Assessment, an assessment that identifies how leaders are likely to behave under most conditions, there’s no real gender difference in behaviors like drive for results or emotional intelligence. What this means is that while each leader has his or her unique style, there’s no glaring difference that would account for a “glass ceiling” effect with women.
What she did find was a significant trend in scores on the CDR Risk Assessment, which measures how leaders tend to behave, and be perceived by others, under pressure.
Let’s pause here and look at what happens to us when we’re under significant pressure. It all begins in the brain, which controls the entire workings of our bodies, including our emotions. When we feel threatened, the body’s natural defensive mechanisms go into action, releasing the “stress hormones” adrenaline and cortisol, which are designed to help us cope with perceived threat.
Bear in mind that our brains have existed in roughly the same state as when the first humans roamed the earth. Our distant ancestors faced (we assume) stressors such as the need to find food and their wish to avoid becoming something else’s food. The brain’s “fight or flight” response was just what they needed to escape danger.
While we’re currently not pursued by saber-toothed tigers; our pressure settings respond to packed calendars, business urgencies, difficult stakeholders, and often demanding families. Regardless of how experienced and talented we are, there are times when we go into our “default settings” under pressure. So are there differences in these default settings between men and women?
Exploring the difference between male and female middle managers, Parsons and her team found that under significant pressure, senior and mid-level male leaders tended to exhibit behavior that “pushed back” on others. They were more likely to talk more or more loudly, perhaps trying harder to bend the rules. Even when they were behaving badly, men exhibiting these tendencies were seen by others as brave.
Women in middle management, when under significant pressure, worried more. They tended to act more cautious and conflict avoidant. Their default style was to move away from pressure, which is likely to result in being seen as lacking confidence and managerial courage…. a “deal breaker” for promotion in most organizations.
Interestingly enough, women in senior executive positions didn’t show this difference. They showed up more like the men at their level, leading with more “push” energy under pressure.
Does this tendency really make a difference in womens’ promotability? I think so.
Consider the case of my client Jessie, a talented manager in her eleventh year at a large technology firm who was frustrated by her lack of upward mobility. She’s smart and talented, supportive of her team and known for delivering results. But under pressure she became intensely worried, which made her less sure and less confident of herself. She was twice considered for promotion, but never seemed to make her boss’ “short list.” She wanted to volunteer for more high-profile and high-impact projects, but she again worried that someone else would be more knowledgeable and effective in that role.
Jessie’s breakthrough was realizing that her over-worry was a self-defeating behavior, not a reflection of actual reality. Objectively, she was as talented as any of her competitors. She had to learn to anticipate when her “worry derailer” was likely to occur and develop alternative thought patterns and responses. Part of her coaching plan involved daily “pressure checks” and mindfulness practice.
Over the next six months, Jessie closely monitored her tendency to worry under pressure. She began each day reminding herself of her competence, talent and the many things that she did well. She held herself accountable for taking calculated risks, and volunteered for projects that she knew would be stretches and “learning experiences.”
Jessie became more able to anticipate when she was likely to over-worry and developed behaviors to adaptively deal with this when it occurred. She solidified her reputation as a proactive, courageous leader. We confirmed this as I re-interviewed her key stakeholders. And within a year, she was promoted to Director.
– Copyright 2015, Leading News
Patricia Wheeler is Managing Partner of The Levin Group, a global leadership advisory firm. With more than 25 years of coaching and consulting experience, she works with leaders around the world who must innovate and deliver exceptional business results within an environment of rapid change and increasing complexity. She is a contributor to Best Practices in Organizational Development, the AMA Handbook of Leadership and Coaching For Leadership: Third Edition.