The Science of People

Three Changes to Empower Silicon Valley’s Women in Leadership

3 Changes to empower women

I’ve been in the heart of Silicon Valley in marketing, sales and product leadership roles for two decades. During this time, I have had the good fortune to meet and be inspired by many talented women including (by way of WillowCreekGLS) Sheryl Sandberg. In her recent talk to this group, she reiterated the sad fact that women make up only 5% of CEO’s globally despite better than average performance demonstrated by women at the top.

A recent study showed the annualized return for female-led firms was 25%, compared with just 11% for the broader market. Yet, In the US we’ve reached an all-time high of Fortune 500 companies led by female CEOs – a grand total of 32. So what gives?

There are three (addressable) reasons women are so poorly represented at the top of the organizational pyramid:

  1. Political Will.
  2. Institutional Support.
  3. Confidence and a desire to Lean In to leadership roles.

Point 1. Policy Support

I agree with Sheryl that we need significant policy changes to encourage women to lead. Equal work for equal pay, affordable childcare, and cultural change that makes it OK for either mom or dad to raise the kids. She told the green shirt story that is worth repeating. As busy COO of Facebook and Mom she makes time to take her son to school, on occasion. St. Patrick’s Day is one of those days. But upon arriving another mother kindly reminds her of the holiday and need for son to be in requisite “green” outerwear. Sheryl considers pushing meetings to make a green t-shirt Target run. Her wise husband suggested this is a great lesson for their son to learn to be okay with being DIFFERENT.

This is a great reminder that guilt is an exhausting companion. Let it go. It will be okay.

Point 2. Company Support

Corporations ARE slow to accept the equality of women. The news is rife with large companies such as Google and Uber struggling with the role of women in the workplace. Research also shows lack of board support means “fix it” female CEO’s tend to have shorter tenures than men in similar turnaround positions (Marissa Mayer, Yahoo comes to mind). Dynamic institutional change needs to happen now that promotes mentorship/sponsorship training, opportunities for non-traditional succession, and a culture that supports clear outcome based performance metrics rather than face time.

Point 3. Personal Engagement

What is not being addressed in today’s dialog is the very thing individual women can control, our own inner belief system. Our research with nearly 200 male and female top executives confirms women leaders are:

  • lower in self-respect (holding ourselves in high regard, knowing our worth);
  • lower in self-confidence (faith in our ability to succeed);
  • lower in self-fulfillment (faith in our ability to overcome failure).

We also are also significantly less likely to make life style sacrifices to succeed. And this phenomenon seems to be most acute for millennials.

If our current leaders are showing a deficit in what I’ll call “self-efficacy”, what must the rest of the upcoming star women leaders be thinking? Well, they are considering the costs and finding the business case for leadership less than compelling.

In fact:

  • 42% of millennial women don’t think sacrifices female leaders make are worth it.
  • Less than 25% of working mothers have any desire to be a leader of industry, rather most are focused on acquiring the right balance between career and home. noted a study showing only 11% of employees overall aspired to the C-suite. And of that 11%, only 31% millennial women said the CEO job fit with their ultimate career goal.

My Net/Net

Women have the skills, experience and behaviors to succeed but to want it, we must be trained for it (early) and we must see role models across business and government succeeding. Like boys who are encouraged on the playground, we need to encourage young girls to compete and win and compete and fail.

And companies need to show young women that the road to leadership is achievable.

To move women up now they must:

  1. Identify women with executive talent early in their careers,
  2. Provide sponsors who will help women build self-esteem, inner confidence, and optimism about their ability to succeed; and
  3. Adopt outcome-based incentives that allow for work/life flexibility so highly competent women refrain from opting out because of the perceived family and lifestyle sacrifice required.

Resources: Where to Start

One of the reasons I’m at SuccessFinder is that we are passionate about delivering programs to help identify, engage and advance women in leadership.  Our Executive leadership program  and Future leaders program  are designed to deliver:

  • data to know who has the natural propensity to achieve at different levels of leadership; and
  • data to drive the directed development plans that get results.

Lessons in Female Leadership: We’re Better Together

I know Sheryl has her 33,000 Lean In Circles which probably makes her a pretty popular speaker, but I’ve got my own killer book club of professional women (we’ve been meeting since the sad demise of PeopleSoft in 2004).  I’m going to invite her to attend because we both know how important it is to have strong authentic friendships.

To that end, our SuccessFinder  Women in Leadership Retreat be connecting women who are crushing it in leadership roles. Please check out our Lessons in Female Leadership blog series starting next week and join the conversation.

This is my story and it’s yours – let’s be the change we want to see.


About the Author: Lisa Hartley is Chief Marketing Officer at SuccessFinder, where she leverages nearly two decades of expertise in Human Capital Management software with companies including SuccessFactors, Taleo and PeopleSoft.


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