Stop Passing the Buck, Ladies

Half the U.S. workforce is women. We hold more college degrees, and more advanced degrees, than men. We're 51 percent of the population. And yet, across most sectors -- business, academia, politics, and even the non-profit sector -- we hold, on average, only 18 percent of top leadership roles.

Why aren't there more women leaders? And what can we do about this?

I've been to three conferences in the last six months where female executives have gathered to discuss this problem. I've been deeply disappointed with what I've heard.

These are women who have defied the odds, and climbed their way to the top of their fields --in science, technology, business, and publishing. Many of these women have children. They've been through a lot to get where they are.

Yet, time and time again, I heard brilliant, successful women get on stage and repeat the same tired arguments:

"It's not going to change in our lifetime."

"This is the next generation's problem."

"We can't expect corporations to change now. Not with the recession and all the pressure to cut costs..."

And that was what they said for public consumption. In private conversation, it was worse.

One woman, a vice president at a Fortune 500 company with a teenage daughter, told me she thinks the problem is that "women whine too much." Another bragged about pulling all-nighters at work soon after her first baby was born, to prove to her (male) boss that she could keep up with the guys. Another complained about getting resumes from women reentering the workforce after taking a few years off to be with their children.

"Do they really think I'm going to consider them for a job? Their skills are stale!"

I'm starting to think that these women "leaders" are part of the problem.

Where's the compassion? Where's the creative thinking? Where's the ... leadership?

Perhaps these women are secretly bitter about the sacrifices they've made, and they don't want to make it easier for other women to follow in their footsteps. Or perhaps they don't understand what life is like for the millions of women who can't afford a a private nanny, or who have a child with special needs.

Perhaps they're under the illusion that they earned their success alone; they don't recognize that they're standing on the shoulders of giants: Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sanger, Betty Friedan. They don't realize it's up to them to pass it on. Instead, they're passing the buck.

But there's a kinder interpretation, one I suspect is more accurate: Many women who make it to the top do so by acting as if their gender is irrelevant. They need to show that there is no difference between them and the men they compete against. To call attention to a "women's issue" might feel like they're pointing out a vulnerability in themselves. It feels like it will undermine their success.

This is what I'd like those women -- heck, all women -- to know:

1. The old career path needs to change
The recipe for career success -- work slavishly long hours, take no time off, devote every waking moment to your company's success -- is outdated. It didn't work for me, and it doesn't work for most of the women I know. After all, 80 percent of us have children, and many more of us care for sick or elderly relatives. (For those of you saying, "But that's your lifestyle choice!" I invite you to read this.)
But guess what? It doesn't even work for men any more. Studies show men now experience more work-family conflict than women do. So while women may be more likely to drop off the fast track than men, making the workplace more family-friendly is not just a women's issue. It's an everyone issue.

2. Men and women are not the same. (Thank goodness!)
Studies show that women have a different leadership style than men, one that makes us incredibly effective as leaders. We're less likely to take uninformed risks, more collaborative, and better listeners. When women are present in significant numbers in leadership roles, the quality of decision-making improves, as does the financial bottom line.

One recent Catalyst study showed Fortune 500 companies with more women officers experience, on average, a 35 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher total return to shareholders.

According to a 2009 White House report:

"The current economic and financial crisis ... calls for a different kind of leadership to steer us toward stability. A growing body of research demonstrates that women's "risk-smart" leadership is perfectly suited to what our nation needs to get on the right track."

In other words, using the recession as an excuse to do nothing is about as lame as saying "the dog ate my homework."

3. Change is not as hard as you think
Redefining career success is a long road, but there are easy steps we can take now.
Things like telecommuting and providing flexible schedules can go a long way to helping people give their best at home and at work. Babies at work programs and better "on and off ramps" can make the difference between a new mom quitting or staying on the job.
There are a gazillion studies now, showing how methods like these give companies a competitive edge in recruiting and retaining talent. In many cases, they save companies money, and make workers more productive. After all, the cost of replacing professional employees can be a whopping 500 percent of salary.

So ladies of the executive suite, you can either be part of the problem, or part of the solution. But to continue saying this is the "next generation's problem," is a complete cop out. Leadership means having the courage to make the workplace more humane for this generation.

Do you have other ideas for redefining success at work? What have others done (or what do you wish they'd done), to help you get where you are?