After almost four years of thinking about advancing women's leadership and talking to hundreds individuals and companies, I decided to scale up my efforts. I've found that my ability to influence individuals and organizations has often propelled my success much more than my acquisition of technical skills and I wanted to shared these lessons learned with more women out there.
On a personal level, I never saw gender as a factor in my influence strategy but once I started interviewing women from all levels of seniority across multiple geographies, several common challenges emerged:
1. Establishing credibility and being heard by others
Despite having credentials, experience, domain expertise, and often seniority, women felt they were not being taken seriously by (mostly male) colleagues and their ideas were being appropriated by others.
-"Even though I am at a C-Suite level, in meetings my male counterparts often repeat what I am saying in a different way and take credit for my ideas"
-"I have a seat at the table but I often feel overpowered by a louder voice (usually male) and many times I will say something / offer solutions and as if no one was listening, someone else (usually male) will say the same thing (sometimes even the same words?) and they will get the credit for the idea. It happens to me over and over"
These women aren't alone. A recent study of Supreme Court justices found that male justices interrupt the female justices approximately three times as often as they interrupt each other during oral arguments. They also found that gender carried 30x more power than seniority in one's chances of being interrupted. Ouch!
[Related: How to Handle Being Manterrupted]
2. Seeing influence as a form of "dark art" instead of as an essential leadership skill
Women often saw only the negative side of power and avoided engaging in strategies to further their interests. There was a common belief that being cooperative and collaborative was the right approach and that genuine effort will be recognized. Findings by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever showed that mental barriers about asking for more were major drivers for women not negotiating. In fact, they found that men initiated negotiations to advance their own interests about four times as frequently as women. The HBR article Nice Girls Don't Ask summarizes some of these findings and the reasons for them. Given that almost all organizations are political and it takes about 20 people on average to take a decision* in a large organization, it seemed that women were not setting themselves up for success by not looking at influence strategically.
*Source: Strategic influence book Art of Woo, by Wharton professor Richard Shell
3. Struggling to find the right temperature for their leadership style
Representation of leadership as a male trait in our society (89% of business school cases feature male protagonists and most business books are written by men and about men) gives women very limited examples as to what it means to be a leader. Being too nice results in not being taken seriously or being taken advantage of and being assertive leads to being perceived as aggressive and not likable. This has made projecting authority more complicated for women and left them with less options to exercise their influence. In addition, they often failed to utilize critical feminine skills like listening, empathizing and problem-solving, strategically.
As I was doing my research for the course, I realized that all the books I was referencing about strategic influence were written by men and all the best Ivy League business classes on this topic were also taught by men (almost all white and middle-aged). They had a very male perspective and didn't take into account the challenges above. Sure enough, one case study did have a woman in it: she was Andy Grove's (Intel's CEO) secretary (!!!).
After months of research and interviews, I am convinced that leadership development programs often let down women by telling them to adapt behaviors that work for men and failing to acknowledge women's unique challenges and needs. We don't need to empower women, we need to help them find paths to power through development that capitalizes on their strengths and provides strategic tools to navigate a work environment that is often biased against them.
Miriam Grobman Consulting works with organizations that want to advance more talented women into leadership roles by breaking cultural barriers and giving them the right skills to be successful. Their approach is data-driven, global and collaborative. Contact them if you'd like to discuss the right strategy for your organization. You can follow their Facebook page, Leadership and Women for inspiring stories about women leaders and practical career advice and sign up for their newsletter.