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  • Writer's pictureMark O'Neil

Why Aren’t There More Women in Leadership?

You might be thinking: What is an old white guy doing writing about women in leadership? In 2020, we saw long overdue light shed on systemic racism in the U.S., and we began working together as individuals and businesses to address it.


Even after Women’s History Month ended, we want to keep this conversation going, especially as it intersects with women’s rights. There are too few women, in particular women of color, in leadership positions at the world’s largest organizations. What are we going to do about that?

While some may think that the healthcare industry has already solved this problem, we still have plenty of progress to make. Women make up 63 percent of entry-level employees at healthcare organizations, but drop to 29 percent of C-suite roles. Barriers to advancement are even higher for women of color, who represent only 4 percent of C-suite executives.

 

Women make up 63% of entry-level employees at healthcare organizations, but only 29% of C-suite executives.

 

This means that healthcare organizations need to find better ways to support and promote the vast pool of women who are qualified candidates for senior leadership – at great detriment to the organizations themselves.


What we can learn from women


In my years of coaching experience, I have heard a lot of coded language around women in leadership. “She’s too aggressive, she’s catty, gossipy, too sensitive…” and so forth. Women can’t get ahead when they’re not assertive; yet they’re viewed as aggressive and unlikable when they are assertive, especially Black women.


Fortunately, I have been privileged to work with many leaders who identify as women throughout my career. These women worked at the highest levels of healthcare institutions, and they taught me so much of what I know today.


Last summer, I set out to read more books by women in leadership. Some favorites:

  • Madam Secretary by Madeleine Albright

  • My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg

  • Democracy: Stories from the The Long Road to Freedom by Condoleezza Rice

  • Tough Love by Susan Rice

  • The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris

I was deeply impressed with each of their stories. They each had a sort of privilege that gave them a head start: all of them had strong, loving parents and a generally positive atmosphere to grow up in. Yet each still had to overcome major hurdles to become a pioneer in her field. RBG’s whole life was dedicated to women’s rights, even when she was staunchly in the minority. Susan and Condoleezza Rice both faced racial injustice at the highest levels of government. Albright immigrated to the U.S. when she was young, slept in a bunker, and learned much about the evils of communism firsthand. Vice President Harris worked to give a voice to the voiceless from the time she graduated from law school. We will get to watch her make history in real time.


In thinking about these and many others, I look for the common denominators in what made these women successful leaders. These qualities stand out to me:


  • Courage - the ability to take action and do the right thing, regardless of consequences

  • Grit - perseverance of effort with a specific goal in mind

  • Humor - especially applied when things are tough

  • Patience - always keeping the ultimate goal in mind

  • Assertiveness – the ability to stand up for yours or others’ rights, in a calm and controlled manner

  • Independence - not being influenced or controlled by others’ thoughts and opinions

  • Emotional intelligence - introspective, relationship-based

  • Resilience - the capacity to recover from difficulties


The question is: Why aren’t there more women like them in leadership positions?


During the first 10 months of the pandemic, women lost 5.4 million jobs – nearly 1 million more job losses than men. Some have gone as far as to call this recession a “she-cession.” Women, particularly women of color, have been shouldered with the majority of unpaid labor at home. As family members fell sick and children switched to studying at home, women were forced to choose between their careers and their responsibilities at home.


What can we do to close the gap?


The answer to this question applies not only to women in leadership, but to women of color and all disadvantaged groups. Leaders don’t just show up out of the blue. They have a set of innate skills that they have developed throughout their life, often starting in early childhood. Their professional experiences serve as building blocks. Perhaps most importantly, they have mentors: people who will advocate for them, challenge them, prepare them, and often give them a seat at the table even before they think they’re ready. Mentors give aspiring leaders a leg up and a shoulder to lean on when times get tough.


But where do these mentors come from?


This is where we often go astray. As men dominate leadership positions, they choose mentees based on who they relate to – most often other men. We need a conscious intent to uplift more women, to identify potential leaders and commit to helping them realize their potential.


As a country, we have plenty of more work to do to address systemic injustice and give families the support they need to balance work and childcare. But as individuals, we can start driving change now, by acting as mentors for women in our organizations.


This process can be daunting for someone new to leadership, so I’m here to help. As an executive coach, I can not only help you realize your own potential, but learn how to be a better mentor for others. Get in touch with me if you’re interested in learning more.


 

Thank you to Amy Hou for her advice and input on this article.

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