by Sue Weston

Making room at the top

Sep 17, 2018
IT LeadershipStaff ManagementTechnology Industry

We need to consider if women are being denied opportunities, or just selecting an alternate career path.

women in business
Credit: Getty Images

I began my career with stars in my eyes. I set my sights high—I was going to climb the corporate ladder and become a chief executive. But slowly, my focus shifted, and I adjusted my trajectory. I told myself that my decision to scale back my ambition was to accommodate life changes and find balance.

When I started my career, work was fun, and I felt like I was making a difference. Looking back, I recognize that my passion and profession needed to align. I need to work in an environment where I matter, where I can shine and dream, and where what you know is more important than who you know.  Ultimately, I connected with a like-minded partner, who shared a burning desire to create a better future. Opting out of the corporate rat-race may contribute to an increase of women entrepreneurs, and the decrease in female CEOs.

 A NY Times article attributes the 25 percent decline in female CEOs to challenges women face as a result of unconscious bias.  People describe the typical CEO as being six feet tall with a deep voice. In an experiment given two identical candidates, participants selected Eric over Erica as a natural leader.  While there is little doubt that unconscious bias exists, we need to consider if women are being denied opportunities or selecting an alternate career path. It is possible that women and men are attracted to different types of positions. Women are more likely than men to run companies on the brink of disaster. And these risky assignments are less likely to result in long tenures, which may contribute to the decline in women CEOs.

It is important to maintain perspective, women only gained the right to vote in 1920 and increased their participation in the workforce during World War II.  Today there are more opportunities for women.  But entering a male-centric workplace and breaking into the C suite has been an uphill battle. More senators are named John than there are women senators.  As women make inroads in politics, these numbers will change. In 2018, the number of women candidates increased, with 72 women running in 66 districts. Politics are just one example where women are breaking into male-dominated fields.

Navigating the corporate ladder can be exhausting!  It requires tenacity and sponsorship for anyone to advance in an organization. This climb to the top is more difficult for women because the number of women leaders decreases the higher in a company you go.  While the old boy’s network provides a connection and support system for male workers, women are on their own.

To compound the problem, women in power tend to be less supportive of other women. Dubbed the Queen Bee syndrome, when a woman in a position of authority treats female colleagues more critically and can be seen as ruthless or cut-throat. Queen Bee behavior prevents other women from advancing. Also, research showed that women who rose to the top by being assertive and dominant were not made to feel included by their female counterparts. It might not be that women are harder on other women, but simply that women are just expected to be nicer.  No matter the cause, the result is that women leaders may experience isolation which can make organizational advancement less appealing.

In my experience, the lack of support contributed to my disillusion. I could not thrive in the large corporate environment and looked outside to find an environment where I felt valued and could contribute.  It is possible that women’s desire to find the right fit is contributing to the growth of women’s entrepreneurship at rates roughly 2 ½  times the national average (114% vs. 44%) (that from 1997 to 2017).  By selecting entrepreneurship, women can create a different organization dynamic. Women can be successful without conforming or competing in male-oriented environments.

The growth of women-owned businesses may be the beginning of a renaissance. It was amazing to me how things changed once I followed my passion. I find working in a woman-owned business affirming, collaborative, and creative. I am close to my business partner because we share a dream, a passion and the ability to deliver amazing results.  Based on my experience, organizations designed by women will change the status quo, by respecting integrity, innovation and creating room for the best talent at the top.