How women can fast-track success and get top jobs

As president and CEO of Catalyst, an organization committed to expanding opportunities for women and business worldwide, I’m often asked why there are still so few women in senior leadership roles—like Meg Whitman, president and CEO of Hewlett Packard—and what forward-thinking men and women can do about it.

Quite frankly, the numbers are embarrassing. Although women make up 45.0 percent of the labor force in S&P 500 companies, only 4.6 percent of S&P 500 CEOs and 25.1 percent of executive/senior-level officials and managers are women. Catalyst’s recent global 2014 Catalyst Census: Women Board Directors reveals that women hold 19.2 percent of board seats in the United States. Worldwide their share of board seats ranges from a low of 3.1 percent in Japan to a high of 35.5 percent in Norway. This simply isn’t good enough if equality is the goal.

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Meg Whitman, CEO, Hewlett-Packard Jacob Kepler | Bloomberg | Getty Images Meg Whitman, CEO, Hewlett-Packard

Meg Whitman, CEO, Hewlett-Packard
Jacob Kepler | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Too often, women’s potential remains unrealized by workplace policies and practices that were designed for a time when only men worked outside the home, and by unconscious biases in the workplace and assumptions about women’s skills and aspirations. In addition, women often lack access to influential sponsors and mission-critical roles that position them for top jobs.

Yet I’m confident that change is on the horizon. In my recent travels around the world, I’ve seen a greater public awareness of, and willingness to discuss, equal opportunities at work than ever before—and a greater demand to forge a better workplace for everyone.

Women are not the only ones who stand to gain. We’ve known for years that having more women on boards and in senior leadership, on average, improves overall financial performance; enables organizations to better serve their customers; minimizes group-think; and causes innovation to flourish. And research from Catalyst and the Harvard Business School found that companies with more women in leadership are associated with increased corporate social responsibility.

In other words, what’s good for women is also good for men, families, businesses and communities.

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I’ve met dozens of role models who are already leading inclusively and reaping the rewards for increasing diversity in their organizations. For example, this year’s Catalyst award-winning initiatives from Chevron and Procter & Gamble are championed by CEOs who understand that with intentional action, profound change is possible. How can we capitalize on this growing momentum?

Push for real change. Time is up for “give it time.” Even the most talented women won’t rise to the top unless they have real chances to lead. We need leaders who set aggressive goals and hold themselves and others accountable for meeting them—not on a project-by-project basis but every day. Identifying and placing qualified women in senior roles should be “business as usual,” not a twice-a-year token gesture.

Ask new questions. Instead of asking, “What can women do to get ahead at work?” ask “What are we doing to make it possible for women to succeed in this organization?” Persistent inequities are often blamed on women’s choices and behaviors: they’re not aggressive enough; they don’t negotiate.

But the truth is, we don’t need to fix women; we need to fix workplaces. Even when women and men start out with the same career aspirations, use the same strategies to get ahead and make similar choices, women still advance more slowly than men—and gender gaps appear early and widen over time.

Male MBAs are hired into higher-level positions right out of school and earn, on average, $4,600 more per year in their first job than their female counterparts. They also advance faster than women, in part because they’re likelier to be given “hot jobs” with bigger budgets and more direct reports.

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“The truth is, we don’t need to fix women; we need to fix workplaces.”

Increase women’s access to “hot jobs.” Women need access to the same opportunities as men, including the international and mission-critical assignments that can fast-track careers. They also need senior-level sponsors who will not only talk to them, sharing knowledge and advice, but will also talk about them, advocating for their advancement.

Sponsorship is crucial to women’s progress—and it’s equally critical for senior leaders to sponsor talented people from a variety of backgrounds. Paying it forward pays back, leading to professional advancement and higher pay for both sponsors and protégés.

Avoid assumptions. Even when sincerely committed to equality, many leaders have unconscious biases. Never assume a woman with children wouldn’t be interested in a high-profile assignment or in relocating for an exciting new role. Ask her! I once met a young woman in India whose boss valued her skills but was reluctant to promote her due to safety concerns (he didn’t want her leaving work alone after hours). Issues like these must be confronted in contemporary workplaces—and women’s careers shouldn’t suffer because of them.

Combat bias by working hard to ensure that your treatment of people matches your stated beliefs. Inclusive leaders try to avoid being blinded by stereotypes. They identify people’s strengths, show them what’s possible and commit to helping them get there.

Treat equality like it’s everyone’s issue. This isn’t about women vs. men; it’s about jointly creating workplaces where everyone can succeed. Every talented individual deserves a chance to lead—and every organization deserves to benefit from all talent. Men need to join this conversation, too. Men gain when women are given promotions and raises and when workplace flexibility is the norm instead of the exception. What dad wouldn’t love to be able to duck out early on Tuesdays to take his kid to soccer practice? Who wouldn’t want to be able to work later on a Thursday so she could run in a charity race on Friday?

This is the kind of workplace we all need—and by sharing power and taking intentional steps to get there, we can build it together.

—By Deborah Gillis. Ms. Gillis is president and CEO of Catalyst, a global nonprofit organization focused on advancing women in business leadership. She can be reached at @Catalystinc.

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