Helping women rise in the workplace

While women now make up more than half of all college students, and are reaching similar levels in the workplace, this hasn’t changed the fact that in the C suite, women are still woefully underrepresented. To learn more about the challenges women face with reaching the top of the ladder, and what organizations can do to bring the bevy of qualified women to the table, we spoke with Dr. Carly Speranza, professor of management and marketing at Marymount University, and Cheryl Williford, president and COO at Modus Create.

ABERMAN: Why is this issue of getting leadership mentorship properly trained into women so important to you personally?

WILLIFORD: Personally, as a female that has come up through the ranks of management and consulting and leadership, especially here locally in D.C., I think it’s very important to me to be able to portray an example for the women and the young women in the area. I think there is an especially interesting aspect to it here in the D.C. area, where there’s a lot of federally based organizations, as well as commercial organizations. And in that world, it’s much more even traditionally male, in the government sector, in the public sector than in the private sector.

So being able to be out in the community and, you know, speak to women, speak to young women, live by example of how to navigate those waters, and come up through those ranks, I think is really helpful here locally, for women coming up through the federal space, as well as the women coming up through the commercial space. And I think it’ll help tie those two ecosystems together really well going forward into the future. And I think women have a strong place in that tie of, you know, not just promoting more women up through the leadership ranks, or leading by example through the ranks, but also tying some of these more esoteric economic worlds together.

ABERMAN: Carly, how about you?

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SPERANZA: Today, women make up roughly 56 percent of college students nationwide. However, they’re still having issues breaking into that C suite, or even reaching mid-management levels. And we’ve found that in every space that women have reached that executive level, they add growth, opportunity, diversity, innovation and the bottom dollar to an organization. And women today are still struggling with, how do I get to that placement? How do I get to that space that I can reach my full potential within a company? And sitting at Marymount, I’ve had many students ask me, how does this work as a young female? What does my space look like when I graduate? And so we decided to look into this, and just start talking to them, and saying, hey, let’s let’s figure out: how do you find mentors? How do you grow confidence? How do you make your own space when you get out there?

ABERMAN: So, first of all, the issue these days is not women having access to higher education. Right. In fact, I’ve heard where there’s almost at some point an affirmative action program to have more young men in college. These days, it appears the issue is not bringing intelligent women into a university or an academic setting. With respect to the workforce, are women also a majority of the workforce now, the professional workforce, or are they a minority there right now?

SPERANZA: Women are actually a majority of the workforce, probably about 50 to 51 percent roughly. They’re also 51 percent of small business owners. So, women are making a difference. Where we’re seeing the biggest gaps, first, the biggest gap is political representation. It’s roughly between 20 and 25 percent nationally and locally across the U.S. But then, in the C suite, only one out of every five C suites have a woman member in those cabinets right now, at the top businesses.

ABERMAN: So it sounds to me, and Cheryl, it’ll be interesting to get your perspective on it, because you’ve pushed through this issue: it sounds to me like the pyramid of life. You know, you start out, everything is a force function. You get educated. If you get educated, you get to an interesting job, but the funnel follows, and narrows and narrows to leadership. CEO, political leadership, division leadership. What is it about the ways the workforce works right now that runs against the ability for women to compete equally for those types of opportunities?

WILLIFORD: It’s a very interesting question, Jonathan. Obviously, one of the most important ones. And it’s very true. So I’ve spent my career in the commercial side. I’m in the technology sector, and largely in consulting. And while Carly points out those statistics and the numbers that, you know, that do hold true, and I see this in the workforce, where the percentage is roughly 50/50 of male to female just in the general workforce within the organizations. But absolutely throughout my years, I’ve seen, as you go up the ladder, so to speak, the proverbial ladder, that disparity is as larger and larger and larger, to the point when you get to the C suite, there are still very few women. And it is typically one female at the table with, you know, about a half a dozen or so males. So it is a problem that does still need to be addressed and conquered.

I think the easy answer to address your question of, what are the preventative factors that hold women back: I don’t necessarily think that’s the right way to even pose it. I mean, the facts are there. And the truth is there. But the holdback, I don’t think is a specific thing. It’s not as if there is a group of men sitting in the conference room saying, hey, what are we going to do to keep women out? I honestly have never experienced that sense or that feeling. All people, men and women, all genders, they just want strong people with great leadership capabilities to run the companies, to run the teams, to manage the people. So I think what we need to look at is: where does that disparity happen, that those skills stop being accreted by women, or women stop pushing themselves forward, or they’re not recognized for some reason, just because of the way men and women think differently, that potentially they’re not actually seen, even if they’re there.

I think that’s the way we need to start addressing the difference here, what’s causing that disparity within the ranks, and solving at that level. As opposed to coming at it in terms of, you know, what’s holding women back. You know, what needs to change within this sector to change the outcome? Carly and I have spoken about this a lot. One of the determining factors, I think, is just the confidence level as well. And I think that’ll get into some of your future questions here, is that women carry with them that confidence that they actually can get to the next step. You know, so that their own fears aren’t holding themselves back.

ABERMAN: We’re past the point of overt exclusionary behavior, but now we’re into something. like, we’re not describing leadership in a way that actually is holistic? You know, it tends to be very patterned towards male types of behavior? Carly, what do you think?

SPERANZA: Well, you’ve got adjunctic and communal traits that are somewhat different. So the bottom line is, yes, male and female leadership tends to be different. And what’s happening right now is that, the research is showing that women are typically not as aggressive there. They typically undervalue themselves, almost 20 percent less valuable than men believe they are. One of the statistics I love to throw out there is that women will typically apply for a job when they are 100 percent qualified, whereas men do when 60 percent qualified.

So women don’t tend to put themselves out there as often as men do for those for those opportunities. And one of the things that I’ve told, since my national security career, my promotions were made through men. Men were my mentors, and men helped me, and they were they were phenomenal champions for me. I actually didn’t work for my first woman role model until I was in national security about 10 years. It’s also a lack of role models out there, a lack of seeing what’s possible. When you see that there are women in the C suite, when you see the route that a woman has taken, it makes you more likely to think, yes, I can get there, why not me?

ABERMAN: Where are women the strongest? What unique skills do they have? Carly, I’ll turn to you first.

SPERANZA: So some of the things that we found is that women are stronger in transformational leadership, meaning they tend to be more inspirational. They tend to have a higher degree of emotional intelligence. Generally, they’re better at listening skills and team building, especially when an organization is going through a large change, or there’s periods of conflict. Women tend to rally the troops, tend to get more buy in, and tend to listen a bit more closely than men, too. They tend to be more likely, probably about 5 percent more likely, to make ethical decisions in the workplace than men do.

ABERMAN: Cheryl, what about you, from the perspective of an entrepreneur?

WILLIFORD: Pretty much along the same lines as Carly is talking about, from the perspective of entrepreneurs, and transformational organizations in general, and companies that help other organizations go through a transformation. Women do bring a trust level, I think, that does help rally the troops. So I think in general, people open up more and talk to women and they’ll talk about, what some of the struggles are. Men and women, both, I think, open up to women more than they’ll open up to men. So, as they’re going through some really tough decision making processes in the organization, especially in the face of transformation at the business level, or at the technical level, or at the financial level, or even at the political level.

Men and women both will seek out a female leader to soundboard with, and to bounce ideas off of, or to talk about their vulnerabilities, or what their concerns are. And that’s a great asset for women to actually internalize and know, that’s sort of one of those soft, inherited skills that I think women excel at, or have, because of the fact that they are women in general. That if they’re aware of that, they can really help organizations, help their own career, help other people’s careers, by understanding they’re going to get a lot more personal information from their coworkers, from their leaders above them, and from people that they’re leading as well. And they can use that information to help mentor. And so, that’s a great aspect of providing mentorship to help within the organizational ranks also.

ABERMAN: Well, that’s a key issue. And I think I want to turn next to the idea of mentorship, you know, helping people develop. But I suspect that one of the reasons why women are so well suited to succeed in today’s workforce is that they expect servant leadership. The idea that you don’t dictate to people, you bring people along by delegating authority and giving them encouragement to execute. As we start to think about these inherent advantages, the combination of empathy, a willingness to learn, delegation, servant leadership, that women seem to be at least indexed towards, how can women position themselves within an organization for promotion in advance?

SPERANZA: Jonathan, you bring up an excellent question. And one of the things that women can do more is, there have to be opportunities. They have to, when they’re thinking about wanting something, or a new opportunity comes up, they need to trust themselves. They need to trust their expertise, their intelligence, their education, and put their names forward. Their mentors, if they are a woman or man, if you see someone that is suited for a certain position or promotion, with women, you are more likely to have to go and have that conversation with them, and give a little bit more of a push. Women are not typically going to barge into a room and say, hey, this is for me. This is perfect for me. That’s just not happening in the workplace as much as it could. So, women really have to have that confidence, and the innate drive to say, yes, I’m ready for this. I can tackle this. Put me in.

ABERMAN: Cheryl, how does this relate to your life passion around mentorship?

WILLIFORD: From both aspects. I think to Carly’s point, women are less likely to barge in to the superior’s office and say, I want this position, give it to me. In terms of mentorship, I think that’s a very important thing, for women to help mentor other women that are coming up, or trying to create more skills, and grow their career path, to let them know to be more assertive. So when we talk about, you know, how can women position themselves better to rise up the ranks, while they’re even using these intrinsic skills that come along with being a woman that add, you know, value in diversity, in leadership? Also, speaking to men that are great mentors as well, and just asking them: what are some of the things that I could be doing different to help me get up the ranks? And it’s usually not about, take this class, or you’re missing this piece of education.

The one thing I learned, and I learned this from every male mentor that I had, and that is: seek out mentors, male or female, that are giving you great information at a personal level, that you feel is valuable, as opposed to having somebody say, I’m going to be your mentor or, you know, don’t wait for a mentor to be assigned to you. If there’s somebody that you’re really impassioned about what they do, and you want to follow their career path, go talk to them. And that’s mentorship in itself. It doesn’t have to be this assigned programmatic type of thing. It’s, you know, building alliances and networking within an organization, and building your own mentorship path of making sure that you’re open to receiving information that you know is going to be valuable to you yourself, personally, to your future. Often mentors don’t know they’re mentors. They don’t know that they’re providing information to other people that are really taking it to heart, and taking it home, and spending a lot of time over the next few years following that path.

ABERMAN: What kind of advice could you give specifically to our women listeners about how to develop mentoring relationships with peers? How do you find a mentor, and get somebody to want to mentor you?

SPERANZA: One thing I’ve noticed is that women will tend to try to go, especially if they’re entry level, they try to go right to the top. You need to find somebody that is in that mid level, maybe somebody that you don’t even work directly with or for, maybe across an organization. Find someone that you would maybe want to be, or a position that you would like to be in, in the next five to 10 years. Just have a conversation with them, ask those questions, say, hey, can we have a coffee one day and talk? Can we sit down and just talk about this? But they’re not going to give you a pathway. You have to have an understanding of maybe where you would like to go, or what are those opportunities? The other thing I’ll tell you with everybody is: work is not enough. Your work product can be absolutely superior. But if you don’t get along well with others, if you can’t build, if people don’t trust you, it won’t work.

ABERMAN: So much of what we discussed today is relevant and applicable to my own career. I’m very fortunate. I have great mentors, people in town here that have taken real interest in my career, both younger and older than me. Someone doesn’t have to be older than you to be a mentor. A mentor is somebody who takes an interest in you. And I’ve found that you have to execute, you know, on a regular consistent basis. It’s not just, hey, let’s have coffee. You have to walk the walk, and mentorship develops organically over a long period of time. It doesn’t happen through a coffee, right?

WILLIFORD: Yeah, absolutely. You have to execute and you have to follow through, and you have to show results. And, you know, you have to be able to present results in a way that can be consumed as well. So even if we’re not talking about work product, and we’re just talking about the outcomes of mentorship, whether you’re receiving it or providing it, if you’re going through your career path and you’re meeting regularly with somebody that you consider as a mentor, or somebody that has a career that you want to follow in, even if it is just a quarterly, hey, let’s have coffee. Let me chat with you, provide information back to that person as well.

You know, again, they may not know that the information they’re giving you, or these coffees, or these conversations, are helping to craft their career. And even if they do know, they may not realize themselves, what is the most impactful conversation, and what is not? Again, back to not everything being a hard skill or an academic skill set. One of the best pieces of mentorship I ever received, that I received from a couple of male mentors, was: learn to negotiate better. You know, you’re out negotiating contracts and large deals. Negotiate for yourself and your career and your tactics, too. Apply some of your hard skills to your own self. So, give the feedback, just as you would give data feedback, such as reporting on dashboards out at work, on your output.

Give that feedback to mentors as well and say, hey, that that piece of information you gave me, Jonathan, has helped me over the last five years, and I am at this level now because I relied on that. And that gives the person that’s providing you mentorship a lot of feedback to know, hey, this is a really important thing for women in general to now. So, as I’m talking to other women, you know, Cheryl told me this really helped her. I should give that same piece of information out to other women trying to get up this path also. So, it is bidirectional, and there’s a responsibility for somebody that’s being mentored to actually help the people that are helping them. You know, it’s the circle, the virtuous circle of giving back.

ABERMAN: It is a virtuous circle of giving back. And it’s also, I think, as we wind up this really illuminating conversation: the best-run organizations, in fact, have cycles to give information, get information, and are organic in how they grow. They grow by empowering people, whether they’re introverts, women, men, to succeed, and then giving them feedback. And in other words, as we conclude this, it seems to me, we’ve talked about women, but ultimately, organizations need to tolerate and encourage diversity so that everybody has an opportunity to grow. Carly, I’ll give you the final word on that.

SPERANZA: I don’t know if it’s just the diversity, but it’s also that recognition that leaders need to understand followers have more power than they’ve ever had before. It’s got to be a team effort, and you’ve got to get the buy in from everyone. And the buy in from everyone means bringing those creative ideas, bringing those ideas you haven’t thought of. Bringing people that have different experiences, that, yes, they look different than you. They have different education than you. But surrounding yourself with others that are exactly like you is not going to get you to the innovation and the creativity and the market space that you crave.