I usually write about the future of work and the workplace. Still, I’m going in a different direction today and exploring a topic that is admittedly uncomfortable for me — women in leadership.
As a senior leader of a large architecture firm, I certainly have experience in the matter, yet I still find this incredibly complex topic a difficult one to distill. The challenges and circumstances vary greatly, but there are some common threads for females in the workplace. I’ll start there.
Leadership is complicated.
A quick search of leadership books on Amazon yields over 60,000 results. So, it seems people have thoughts on this topic. Throw in traditional gender roles, personal experiences, and rapidly evolving expectations of what great leadership even is … it’s easy to see why this issue is complex. I think it’s most interesting to separate the path to leadership from the role of being a leader—path versus practice. In my view, which is also backed with corresponding research, once women actually reach leadership roles, they flourish at a rate equal to, or greater than, their male counterparts.
HBR published research in 2019 where women leaders outscored their male counterparts in 17 of 19 competencies like taking the initiative, practicing self-development, and being champions of change. A compelling data point from Zenger Folkman, included in the HBR reporting, shows that women are less confident than men at the beginning of their careers — not reaching an equivalent level of confidence until their 40s, then surpassing the confidence of our male counterparts in their 60s.
The COVID-19 pandemic gave us two distinct storylines about women. First, the global research reported that countries led by women had better outcomes managing the number of cases and deaths in those respective countries. Storyline number two, the mass exodus of women from the workplace, possibly as many as 3 million, was driven by layoffs and the mounting pressures of child and elder care during the pandemic.
Recent projections from McKinsey and Oxford Economics estimate that women’s employment may not recover to a pre-pandemic level until 2024 — two years after men. According to the National Women’s Law Center, female workforce participation is at its lowest level since 1988. I was 13 in 1988 and am part of Generation X; remember us? A generation of women that were told we could do anything we wanted to do. But it is starting to feel like everyone wasn’t in on that plan. From where I sit, we all have work to do if we want the next generation of leaders to include more women.
While I relish shining a light on fellow female leaders and celebrating women’s accomplishments in the workplace, I really struggle with rallying around thin concepts like calling each other #girlboss. It’s just boss. No one ever says #boyboss. I’d rather focus on the connection of confidence to a career path—that and getting women back in the workforce — in creative and innovative ways.
Too often, I hear stories of women not advocating for themselves throughout their careers. To advocate for yourself, first, you have to decide what you want — and then continually re-evaluate and re-think that. As leaders of any gender and all levels, it is our jobs to create spaces for people to share their goals, to be open about what they want to accomplish, and how they want to be challenged. I’m going to wade in even further.
“The braver I am, the luckier I get.”
― Glennon Doyle, Untamed
As women, we have to choose partners that will support our goals. And the circle of what I consider partners is big: spouses and life partners, business partners, co-workers, mentors, and friends. When I think about the circles, I have around me — to challenge, support, and commiserate — my story wouldn’t exist without them. Neither would this article. Every time I do an interview or sit on a panel and I am asked what advice I have for young women in their careers, this is what I say – choose your partners wisely. It matters.
I feel strongly that you can’t wait for someone to ask you what you want to do. There are too many narratives that get written for women in the absence of us taking control of the story.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Becoming the president of an architecture firm was not my original career plan. But it became my plan, as I got clarity on my strengths and the things that I enjoyed doing, and I saw opportunity. And you better believe I asked for this job. As leaders, we have to make it safe to acknowledge that we want to press the gas at different points of our careers and set the world on fire, and at others, we might need more balance in our lives.
I think this is one of the notions that men struggle accepting, but I think in it lies part of the answer of how we keep women on a leadership track. I have seen it time and time again; some flexibility for high performers — at the time when it is needed the most and when it is asked for — makes all the difference. I have more leaders than I can count on our teams that have done just that, and today they are integral to Corgan’s success. What that looks like isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and why two-way communication is vital to keeping women on the path to leadership.
What we lose in the long term when women self-select themselves out of a leadership path because they don’t think they can keep up in the short term with a new baby, or a sick parent, or health challenges — we can’t even measure it. What we lose when others make that decision for women, well, that’s even worse.
As women, we owe it to all the other women, be honest about what we want, talk about where we are struggling, and let others help. Too many of us wait until we only see one way out to share our struggle or until we can’t keep up and performance suffers. When they said we could do anything, no one said we had to do it by ourselves. I might not be a fan of #girlboss, but #teamworkmakesthedreamwork is what I am all about.
Home to Hired
The next challenge is getting the women who have left the workplace in recent months and years who want back in — back in! The amount of talent loss is staggering and overcoming the resume ‘gap’ is a real issue.
Ashley Connell founded the Austin-based firm Prowess to deal with this growing issue, or rather an opportunity, connecting a virtually untapped talent pool with flexible work opportunities. “The problem is front-page news, but the solutions aren’t. Forty-three percent of women leave the workforce to take care of their children. 97 percent would go back if they had access to flexible jobs. And the biggest barrier to re-entry: lack of confidence,” Ashley shares.
There it is again, lack of confidence holding women back from opportunities in the workplace. Ashley believes the solution is a clear path from ‘home to hired.’ Providing an integrated platform that includes goal setting, up-skilling, networking – women and companies are finding successful matches.
This idea of featuring innovative solutions, in all their forms, to the hosts of issues facing women in the workplace today versus continuing to highlight what isn’t working — that makes sense to me. Not to mention the role that workplaces and policies can play in equity and inclusion across the board.
We must all agree we are all the better off when we have women in the workforce and then work together to find solutions that work for women, families, and employers. I think this all really makes me uncomfortable because I wonder if I could ever possibly do enough to make a difference. But I want to try.
Lindsay Wilson is the president of Corgan.