How to Shape Stronger Pathways for Women in Leadership

By Salvatore Ciolfi June 12, 2020

The Women in Leadership: Shaping Stronger Pathways panel discussion, the latest in BrainStation’s Digital Leadership Event Series, took place on June 11th, and professionals around the world tuned in to discuss the challenges women face in the workplace.  

You can watch the full panel discussion here:

While career opportunities for women have increased over the years, women are underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline, but especially in senior leadership; Only 21 percent of C-suite positions are filled by women. 

A study by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org found that for every 100 men promoted or hired at the manager level, only 72 women were hired or promoted to manager. The gender difference is so great that researchers claim this first step up to manager – often referred to as the “broken rung” – is the biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership positions, with women in marginalized communities facing multiple broken rungs.

There are, however, a number of initiatives organizations can take to strengthen and diversify their talent pipeline and shape stronger pathways for women into leadership. 

Help Close the Confidence Gap

A survey of British Managers found that half the female respondents reported self-doubt in their job, compared with fewer than a third of male respondents. Another study found that men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. This has a direct correlation with career advancement, as women are 26 percent less likely to ask for a job referral than men, even when they are qualified. As per the oft-quoted stat: Men apply for a job if they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, while women will only apply if they meet 100 percent of them. 

“Women are often taught that we need to be humble and silent about our accomplishments. We have a lot of fear when it comes to speaking up and asking for the things that we deserve, but rather than having that fear, we need to have the audacity to put our hands up, ask for referrals, apply for roles we might not have all the qualifications for,” Danica S. Nelson, a Senior Marketing Communications Manager at Telus said, adding that it’s important to acknowledge and share the effects of imposter syndrome.

“I face imposter syndrome on a weekly basis, and we need to make it very clear to people who see us on panels or in leadership positions that hey, I’m afraid a lot of the time too, I’m not 100 percent confident,” she said. 

Catherine Hunter, the Advisory Partner and Technology Transformation Leader at EY, believes there are a number of things organizations can do to help women close the “confidence gap” that may be fueling imposter syndrome. 

“We’ve probably all felt imposter syndrome at some point in our career, but there are lots of little things organizations can do to help. This concept of exec presence, and helping people feel more confident when they’re in a room with others in terms of how you present, how you speak, the content of the material, those sorts of things can help people if they feel they may need more support,” she said. 

Hunter also suggests senior leaders provide opportunities to boost the confidence of their more junior colleagues.

“Offering people opportunities where they feel they can succeed in turn helps build confidence,” she said explaining that confidence can help employees turn their ideas into action.

Let Go of Perfect

Numerous studies have shown that women in the workplace often ruminate over their own mistakes, leading to stress levels that are up to 67 percent higher than men. “These are the pressures you place on yourself,” Clinical Psychologist Dr. Jessamy Hibberd, Co-Author of This Book Will Make You Calm, told the Guardian. “For example, checking and rechecking work, spending too long on each task, taking work home, and setting excessively high standards.”

An organization’s culture, and paradoxically, a focus on finding the optimal work-life balance may be increasing the pressure women impose on themselves. When asked about balancing work and life and setting the tone for her team, Tonia O’Connor, CEO of Chopra Global said: 

“I don’t believe in balance. Balance suggests perfection and perfection is not achievable. I don’t want anyone to think it is because you’ll continue to strive for that and feel inadequate. I always say I’m perfectly out of balance.” 

That imperfection, in fact, might be an advantage. Monika Saksena, the Director, Global Partnerships and Tools at Google, argues that women should continue to tap into their more reflective nature. 

“I think one asset we have as women is vulnerability. We can bring our whole selves more easily, so I think being open and being transparent and bringing our whole selves to work sets the tone,” she said.

Encourage Mentorship and Sponsorship

Saksena believes that providing mentorship opportunities can help strengthen pathways for women in leadership. 

“Peer mentorship is essential. The value of talking to someone in the same boat and figuring those stories out is huge,” she said.  

It is, however, important to remember that mentorship is a two-way street. 

“Just because you might be a junior exec in an organization, don’t think that you don’t have mentorship or something to offer to executives who might be above you, especially living in the digital times,” said O’Connor. 

“Everyone has a role to play as a teacher and as a student.” 

O’Connor argues that sponsorship – where a senior colleague advocates for junior or women employees and supports their growth – may be just as important as mentorship.

“Men are often promoted on their potential when women are promoted on their track record and demonstrated success. So it’s important to sponsor women, even if they don’t check all the boxes for desired roles,” she said. 

Encouraging a culture of sponsorship, however, can be challenging. Many employees look to company leaders to set the tone, but what steps can they take?  

“A big part of my leadership role is to challenge male counterparts on active sponsorship of underrepresented individuals in our organizations,” said Serena Nguyen, the Director, Talent Experience and Strategy at MaRS Discovery District. 

“You’re putting yourself out there and challenging the status quo. It’s a difficult and uncomfortable conversation sometimes, but if you anchor it in respect and the facts of what you’re seeing, it goes a long way to bring others into this journey of sponsorship,” she said.

Danica Nelson of Telus agrees but also encourages women to continue self-advocating.  

“I’ve just learned that we have to be our own cheerleader and our own PR team because we won’t always have people to speak up for us. We really have to take on that role and pick up the mic ourselves sometimes,” she said. 

Hunter echoed the sentiment, reflecting on what she might have done differently in her first Manager role. “I could have asked more questions and sought out mentors,” she said, adding that if there is a bright side, it’s that women now have more resources available to them – and it’s only increasing with time. 

“I’m seeing more supportive networks and groups where women can come together, speak openly and candidly, seek out mentors, and also seek out sponsors.”

The future, after all, is female. 

Register now for the next BrainStation Digital Leadership Event.