Getting Smarter About Gender Smarts

How can companies satisfy the career-cravings of their high-potential women?

Although many companies try hard, their considerable efforts and expense often come up short because of a profound misunderstanding that prevents women from achieving their career aspirations.

New research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that too many women step off the fast track because they see an executive role delivering a hefty salary but little else that they value. According to Women Want Five Things, college educated women aged 35-50 (working in white collar occupations) do not understand that power can give them what they want. They perceive the burdens of leadership outweighing the benefits -- a perception shared by 60 percent of U.S. women and 65 percent of U.K. women.

In fact, our data reveals, power can enhance both their professional and personal lives. Rather than a limitation, power is what enables women to thrive.

What keeps women fully engaged and on track for leadership roles is a multifaceted value proposition. They want the ability to:

Flourish. Women want to have agency and impact: the ability to self-actualize through their career.

Excel. Women want intellectual challenge in order to grow their mastery and ace a domain of knowledge or expertise. Equally important is being recognized for their smarts.

Reach for meaning and purpose. Women blossom when their work helps advance causes important to them and allows them to stretch beyond their own expectations and those of their family or community.
Empower others, and be empowered. Women seek both sponsors who are willing to take a bet on them and advocate for their next big opportunity, as well as protégés whom they rely on to deepen their capabilities, extend their reach, and burnish their brand.

Earn well. Women say it's important to them to attain financial security as well as financial independence.

(Our research finds that men want these things, too, and are clear-sighted about the importance of power and sustain their interest in going after it)

Our research finds that time and again, women without power overwhelmingly don't expect that an executive position will fulfill this value proposition. And our research reveals that time and again, women with power find their current position overwhelmingly satisfies this value proposition.

How then can companies help women achieve this metamorphosis from aversion to enthusiasm?

One key to the puzzle is that although societal norms have shifted as more women assume positions of power, few stories extol their sense of fulfillment, intellectual excitement and sheer joy inherent in having the top job. Instead, the prevalent narrative is still one of sacrifice: the toll career ambitions take on one's personal life.

It's true that taking on the responsibilities, sustaining the pace, and fulfilling the requirements of a senior leadership role is daunting. But companies can help their high-achieving women accomplish even more by providing the necessary support systems: advice in building powerful allies, trusted lieutenants and extensive networks of loyal protégés; opportunities for stretch assignments and high-profile projects; and coaches, mentors and, most particularly, sponsors willing to teach, protect and promote them as women navigate the corridors of power.

But in addition to these tactical steps, companies must put an equal amount of effort into changing women's perceptions of what powerful positions entail. They must provide role models who give voice to the substantial joys and rewards of leadership, thus inspiring more qualified women to stay connected through the difficult mid-career years. They must sustain women's ambition, both by meeting their needs as they progress toward leadership and by ensuring that leadership actually delivers on women's value proposition.

Our research shows that when women perceive that an executive role will satisfy, rather than subvert, their value proposition, they reclaim their ambition for leadership. U.K. women who anticipate getting what they want are 4.3 times as likely (43 percent vs. 10 percent) to aspire to a position of power as those who do not anticipate fulfillment; with U.S. women, they are 2.8 times (34 percent vs. 12 percent) as likely to aspire to a position of power as those who do not anticipate that fulfillment.

The smarter companies get about gender smarts, the more their talented women will soar - and the more the companies will benefit.