The public conversation about the role of women in the workplace was recently reinvigorated by the appointment of (pregnant) Marissa Mayer as Yahoo's new CEO and the controversial article by Anne-Marie Slaughter. This conversation has been waxing and waning throughout my career … and my mother’s career … and even my grandmother’s career.
Like so many others, I continue to ask: Why we are still discussing this? The answer to this is anchored in a lack of discussion about two societal issues:
- As a society we need to support the individual career choices that women make throughout their careers.
- Many people are not comfortable with women as leaders, for a variety of reasons.
Both men and women have dreams to be a CEO, but not everyone will make it to the top. For many, the problem is rooted in the fact that talented leaders are overlooked because of career choices they make at different points in their lives. Frankly, companies often reward tenure more than talent. Should women — or men for that matter — be written off as leader material if, for example, they take a career break or prefer to work from home occasionally?
Being a parent will obviously impact birth mothers more than others, but many women prefer to get back to work as soon as possible. And men in the millennial generation want to stay home with their children and still have the option to re-enter the workforce (20 percent in a recent study by Bentley’s Center for Women and Business). But the reality is that they don’t. In fact, the issue was a hot topic at the Working Mother Work Life Congress in New York. Even among the 100 Best Companies, few men are choosing this option for fear that it will impact their careers forever, as it does for so many women.
In relation to the big picture, this issue is an easy fix. Companies are stronger when they don’t bench their strongest talent, regardless of gender.
Now to the bigger issue: Can women be good leaders that others accept with comfort? Women see themselves as capable leaders. And, an extensive study by Zenger and Folkman confirms that they are rated higher on nearly every measure of leadership competencies. Where they fall short is on being visionary. I’m not questioning the fact that we need leaders who can see a way through the weeds to a bright future. But ideas and visions are successful only if they can be implemented effectively and ethically. Too much creativity seems to get companies in trouble.
We have grown into a society that continuously looks for celebrity heroes as role models. It’s time to look more broadly. It’s time to realize that there are some gender differences that play out in the workplace but they are not good or bad, not right or wrong, just different.
The concept of “equifinality” holds when it comes to leadership. There are lots of ways to reach the same outcome. The most tracked measures of business success have to do with financial gains. Notice I said gains. Being able to consistently weather economic ups and downs with a steady but modest profit is not seen as a good thing. Instead, we must win; we must be tough. Really?
Both men and women are beginning to realize that the outcomes currently sought in the business world are not as comprehensive as they ought to be. Hence, we are seeing performance measurement tools that go beyond financials to look at employee engagement, service to society and customer service; discussions about corporate social responsibility to society and the environment; the Conscious Capitalism movement to enhance corporate performance while simultaneously advancing the quality of life for all stakeholders.
Women do not need to dress or act like men to be effective leaders. They may take a different path to success or create new definitions of success. As more women — and men — who are comfortable in their own skin reach the top through a variety of paths, my hope is that discussions about women in the workplace will have a different focus, less about gender and more about individuals.
Susan Adams is a professor of management and senior director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University.