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Why Professional Women Aren’t Reaching the Top — And 5 Ways Other Women Can Change That

Toni Wolfman

The fact that many of us had to overcome significant hurdles as we banged our heads against the glass ceiling doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to help smooth the path for the women who come after us. If we don’t, how can we expect our male colleagues to do so? As Madeleine Albright famously quipped, in her 2006 keynote address to the WNBA, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Reading Bentley’s recent Women in Business study, I was struck in particular by survey responses relating to differences between millennial women and men, and by the need for more women to step up to the plate and use their individual and collective clout to level the playing field for all women — from those just entering the business world to those ready to take top leadership positions.

Some of the findings include:

  • 90 percent of respondents think women have what it takes to succeed in business
  • 95 percent think that women are as ambitious as men, and 83 percent are as interested in business
  • 57 percent of corporate recruiters feel women are better job candidates than men
  • A majority of recruiters and business decision makers (61 and 54 percent, respectively) think women they have recently hired are better prepared than their male peers
  • 80 percent of business leaders consider women better suited for business success in terms of organizational, communication and interpersonal skills

Nevertheless, 70 percent of respondents still believe men are better suited to succeed in “today’s business climate.”

What does this mean? Both male and female survey respondents attribute the disconnect between women’s abilities and their success in pursuing business careers primarily to four interrelated factors. Specifically, when compared to men, women don’t have:

  1. Enough encouragement to enter and remain in the business world
  2. As many opportunities in business as men
  3. Enough mentors in the business world
  4. Family and other constraints that continue to hold them back

At the Center for Women in Business at Bentley, my colleagues and I might put it differently, focusing instead on the institutional structures and corporate culture that either encourage or thwart the creation of a supportive, inclusive environment where women are retained and can advance to leadership positions. Regardless how one defines this situation, however, there is no question that those of us who have “been there, done that” can make a big difference for all those who follow after us.

Here are five ways to do that:

Start with the right mindset.

Regardless of our individual career paths, all of us have benefited to some extent from the help of women and men who preceded us or provided support at critical junctures in our lives. It doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of our own hard-won success to also pay it forward. At our Women in the Workplace event in March, Beverly Scott, general manager of the MBTA and MassDOT, said, "There's nothing meaningful about being the only." Her point was then reiterated by Governor Deval Patrick, who urged women to, “Pass it on. It doesn’t mean a thing to be the first in your senior position unless there’s a second, and there are a lot of seconds waiting to be discovered.” In order to bring along the second, third, and fourth, women need to embrace their own power and be prepared to expend it on behalf of other women. This is a legacy whose benefits will be far-reaching.

Share your story.

Be aware of your influence on younger women — and men, too. They are watching you and learning from your example. One of the highlights of our center’s annual Gearing Up Conference for women in the first decade of their careers is the lunchtime panel, where senior and mid-level women share their stories and answer questions posed by the audience. These young women are looking for a range of role models who can help them visualize where they could be at different points in the future. They take inspiration from those who’ve gone before them, and they learn how to better navigate their own careers from your experiences — your successes and your failures.

Take a broad view of mentoring.

While individual mentor-mentee relationships and sponsorship are critically important, there are many less time-consuming ways in which women can provide the encouragement and advice that Bentley’s survey respondents say are needed:

  • Invite a more junior woman (or group of women) out for a casual lunch where there's an open dialogue. You’ll provide a comfortable environment for a discussion of issues on which your observations and experience can be pivotal.
  • Take a minute to pat someone on the back for a job well done to shore up the confidence that too many women lack in themselves. Don’t let a female colleague or report undersell or doubt herself.  
  • Recognize that women often aren’t comfortable promoting themselves unless they feel 100 percent ready for an opportunity (while men will do it when they’re only 60 to 70 percent confident in their abilities)
  • Take a chance on a woman who shows promise. Your male colleagues do these things as a matter of course, and women ought to do the same.

Some women corporate directors even make it a point to meet with groups of women employees at each company on whose board they sit. Not only do these meetings offer a director a relevant perspective on the company’s operations and workforce, but they send a clear message that there is room at the top of the company for strong and accomplished women.

Combat unconscious bias and help create a gender intelligent workplace.

In addition to the institutional barriers that all women — whatever our age or position — face as we try to build lives for ourselves beyond the workplace, while at the same time pursuing our career goals, is the very real fact that the business world as a whole is still run by men, many of whom make unwarranted assumptions based on stereotypical notions about how women do or should behave.

One of the most important roles that senior women can play is educating their male colleagues about gender intelligence. They also need to call out situations in which different standards are applied to the evaluation of women and men — in hiring, work assignments, compensation, and promotions. Women must insist on having a voice in all of these processes, so that they can ask the questions that need to be asked and assure that unwarranted assumptions and stereotypes are addressed and eliminated from consideration. It’s not necessary to be heavy handed about this or to be seen as “waving the pink flag.”

I’ve always loved the story of a woman director of a Fortune 1000 company, whose answer to a male colleague on the nominating committee when he dismissed a woman board candidate from consideration because “We already have one woman on the board,” was to later point out — with respect to a particular male candidate — “We can skip over this resume, too, since we already have two bald white men on the board.”

Open doors for other executive women.

Senior women need to help one another, too. Being the only woman in a leadership position can be terribly isolating. We are fortunate in the Boston area to have organizations such as The Boston Club, Women Corporate Directors, and The Commonwealth Institute. These and similar organizations provide venues for women leaders to develop trusting relationships with peers confronting similar challenges, and otherwise can provide advice and support when it’s most needed.

In the course of my years of working with companies and executives to advance more women to board positions, I have found that sitting women directors and executives have been the most effective agents of change. They are the folks who speak up when a nominating committee or search firm presents an all-male slate of candidates, and they are the ones who reach out to identify women whose skill sets and experience meet the company’s needs.

It is disheartening when the only woman on a board joins her male colleagues in holding female candidates to a higher standard than is called for by the situation, or she remains silent when qualified women are either passed over or simply not given serious consideration. Without intention, her failure to help open the boardroom door can be viewed by those colleagues as implied permission to continue to fill board seats with people just like themselves. We all ought to follow the example set by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who keeps in her purse a list of 10 women qualified to run companies as CEOs or directors and pulls it out whenever someone complains that they can’t find one.

In order to attain a critical mass of women on corporate boards and in executive suites, women must play an active role.

Toni G. Wolfman is an executive-in-residence at Bentley University’s Center for Women in Business, a passionate, well-known and effective advocate for placing women on corporate boards, and a former attorney recognized for her contributions to the legal profession and the advancement of women.