Women Need to Manage Upward, not Down or Sideways, to Get a Seat at the Leadership Table

Like it or not, Donald Trump is generating a lot of discussion about leadership. I'm drawn to commentaries on how Trump's leadership style contradicts everything we believe to be true about the characteristics of a good leader (see, for example, James Wright's post: "5 Truths I Learned About Trump After Interviewing to be His Apprentice" or Professor Pfeffer's article "Everything we Bash Donald Trump for is Actually What we Seek in Leaders" ).

I have no interest in jumping into the "Donald Trump as President" debate but the commentaries have triggered thoughts about women as leaders, or why so few women end up in positions of leadership. Pfeffer notes that people who are narcissists, overly confident, and good at self-presenting are more likely to be selected as leaders because; (1) we know them, these people are familiar to us; and (2) we like to be around people who are confident and present themselves as winners.

Women, unfortunately, often manage down and sideways, not up. In a study by Misra and colleagues called "The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work", the authors found that women faculty are less likely to be promoted to full professor within a university, and that the pathway to promotion is longer. One of the reasons given is that women are more likely to spend time in service roles, for example, directing graduate or undergraduate programs and mentoring students, whereas men spend more time on research. One female respondent said she undertook a lot of service because she wanted to build a community of scholars in order to ensure a healthy, sustainable university.

Before you dismiss the research as irrelevant to a non-university context, I think there are some important insights that are transferable. When women invest in making the workplace a more fair and just community, a place where people find purpose and meaning, they run the risk of undertaking activities that leadership might not notice or value. One outcome is that women are known and familiar... but to the "wrong" people. So, what should be done?

1. Market Upwards: if you are a woman, then you need to take more care to "market upwards". Make sure people in leadership positions know what you do and what you are capable of doing. Failure to do this will likely see you overlooked for promotion.

2. Time Allocation: if you are a woman, pay attention to the ways in which you allocate your time and how this compares with activities that matter, are put under the spotlight, and are rewarded.

3. Look Beyond the Obvious: if you are in a position of leadership, and you care about: (1) ensuring you hire the "right" person for the job; (2) having a diverse leadership team; and (3) providing opportunities for women, then look beyond the noise. Pay attention to a wider spectrum of candidates, not just the overconfident who self-present/self-promote.

Women enter the workforce now on a more level playing field than ever before: more women than men graduate from college; and recent women graduates almost earn the same as men. How has your organization adjusted? Does your organization truly embrace gender differences in the workplace such that women have an equal chance at substantive promotions?