Article: Are you stalling women's journey to leadership at work? Expert spills traits and remedies


Are you stalling women's journey to leadership at work? Expert spills traits and remedies

Navigating the corporate world can be challenging, but mentors can serve as guides. Maureen O’Neill recommends that women seek the experiences and insights of mentors who have successfully navigated similar paths.
Are you stalling women's journey to leadership at work? Expert spills traits and remedies

In 2023, for every 100 men who moved up from entry-level to manager, 87 women were promoted, revealed the Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey. As individuals reach the director level, where the C-suite becomes more attainable, both women and men expressed equal interest in senior leadership roles. The study also found that young women are particularly ambitious, with nine out of ten under the age of 30 aspiring to move up to the next level and three out of four aspiring to become senior leaders. 

However, despite notable strides made towards achieving gender equity in the workplace, women continue to encounter distinct challenges in professional environments. Whether it's dealing with unconscious gender bias, confronting stereotypes, lacking visible leadership role models, or facing systemic societal barriers, the journey to career success often demands that women navigate numerous obstacles. 

To shed light on the persistent challenges women still confront, we turned to Maureen O’Neill—SVP, Strategic Client Experience and Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Consilio. As a driving force behind the development of a women’s mentorship program aimed at enhancing the retention and recruitment of women, O'Neill shared insights into some of the most prevalent challenges.

1. Unconscious gender bias and stereotypes

Women frequently encounter subtle biases and stereotypes that can hinder their professional success. Stereotypes about women’s leadership styles, communication skills, or emotional intelligence can undermine their credibility, stall their career advancement, and create toxic work environments that cause them to drop out of the workforce altogether. Some examples of these kinds of biases and stereotypes include: 

  • The prove-it bias, which requires women to do more to win the same respect and recognition that their male peers receive by default.
  • The tightrope dilemma, which prescribes a narrow range of acceptable behaviour for women, who are expected to walk a fine line between demonstrating feminine traits while at the same time acting as confident leaders. Despite their accomplishments, successful female leaders are often labelled as difficult or bossy, even when they exhibit the same assertiveness that is praised in their male counterparts.
  • The maternal wall, which results in women with children being passed over for promotions or given mommy track assignments that lead to fewer opportunities for advancement or recognition. Working mothers face a Hobson’s choice: If they seek more flexible work arrangements to accommodate child-rearing responsibilities, they may be viewed as not sufficiently committed to their careers; but if they push ahead with full-time careers and strive for success, they may be perceived as bad mothers. 

2. Work-life balance struggles

Women often find themselves juggling demanding careers with obligations related to family and caregiving responsibilities. The struggle to maintain a reasonable work-life balance can hinder professional growth and result in women being overlooked for promotions, key assignments, and other career-enhancing opportunities.

The widespread adoption of remote and flexible work arrangements during the Covid-19 pandemic offered women the chance to find this balance. With the ability to work from home, women gained increased flexibility to manage professional responsibilities and family commitments. This flexibility allowed for a more personalised approach to time management, empowering women to create schedules that accommodated childcare needs and other domestic responsibilities. 

But despite these positive strides, challenges persist in achieving a fulfilling work-life balance. The blurred boundaries between work and home in remote settings can lead to an always-on mentality, making it hard for women to establish clear demarcations between their professional and personal lives. Women still shoulder a disproportionate share of caregiving responsibilities, and the lack of support structures can hinder their ability to fully embrace the benefits of flexible work. And in many workplaces, employees have returned to the office, eliminating the flexibility that offered such an advantage for women.

3. Lack of representation in leadership positions

The scarcity of women in executive roles remains a problem. When women don't see others who look like them in leadership, it becomes harder for them to envision themselves in those positions. The absence of role models contributes to a lack of confidence and aspiration among women professionals.

The role of mentorship in empowering women

A mentorship relationship involves an experienced and knowledgeable person (the mentor) providing guidance, support, and advice to a less experienced colleague (the mentee). Effective mentorship in the workplace benefits both employers and employees.

For employees, mentorship fosters professional growth by providing personalised guidance, imparting industry knowledge, and offering insights into navigating the complexities of the workplace. The support of mentors enhances job satisfaction, boosts confidence, and accelerates career development. 

Mentors often serve as advocates, helping mentees expand their professional networks and seize opportunities for advancement. For the employer, mentorship contributes to a more skilled and engaged workforce. It aids in knowledge transfer, ensuring that institutional wisdom is passed down, and cultivates a positive organisational culture. Companies with robust mentorship programs typically experience increased employee retention, improved morale, and a heightened sense of loyalty. 

For women in particular, mentorship is a powerful mechanism to help them overcome professional challenges. By fostering supportive relationships between experienced leaders and aspiring professionals, mentorship can provide women with guidance, encouragement, and valuable tools for navigating the corporate environment. A mentorship relationship provides a supportive space for women to work through obstacles, build confidence, and strategise for career advancement. 

Ways in which mentorship can empower women

1. Building a network

Networking is a critical component of career success, and mentorship can facilitate the expansion of valuable professional networks and connections. For women, who may have faced exclusion from informal networks, a mentor can provide introductions to influential leaders and decision-makers, and help them build professional relationships that can open doors to new opportunities and collaborations. By vouching for their capabilities, the mentor can contribute to a positive narrative around the mentee’s leadership style. 

2. Boosting confidence

Confidence is often a key factor in career progression. A mentor can play a crucial role in building a woman’s confidence by recognising and affirming her abilities. As women gain confidence, they are more likely to overcome imposter syndrome and assert themselves in the workplace.

3. Finding work-life balance

Mentorship can be particularly valuable in helping women achieve a better work-life balance. Experienced mentors can share their own experiences, offer practical advice, and serve as examples for successfully managing both professional and personal responsibilities.

4. Modelling effective leadership and communication styles

Mentors can demonstrate through their own leadership styles that qualities such as assertiveness, decisiveness, and resilience are not gender specific. By serving as role models, they can inspire confidence in their mentees to embrace their leadership qualities without fear of negative labels.

Mentors can offer guidance on effective communication strategies, emphasising the importance of being clear, concise, and confident in expressing ideas while maintaining a collaborative approach. By honing communication, conflict resolution, and decision-making abilities with guidance from a mentor, female leaders can project confidence while avoiding the difficult stereotype. 

5. Navigating the corporate landscape

The corporate world can sometimes be tricky to navigate, and mentors can often help develop a roadmap. Women can benefit from the experiences and insights of mentors who have successfully traversed similar paths, gaining valuable advice on career progression and strategic decision-making. Mentorship provides a safe space for women to discuss office dynamics and politics. Mentors can offer guidance on how to handle challenging situations and build professional relationships without compromising authenticity. 

6. Developing knowledge and skills

Mentorship offers a platform for the transfer of knowledge and skills from experienced professionals to those seeking to develop. Mentors can guide women in honing their skills, expanding their knowledge base, and gaining insights into the nuances of their industry. This is particularly crucial in industries where women may be underrepresented, as it helps bridge the skills gap.

Empowering women in the workplace is a strategic necessity for organisations to succeed in the competitive global market. By acknowledging and addressing the challenges women face, and working to dismantle harmful stereotypes, organisations can create a more inclusive and equitable workplace where women are positioned to thrive.

Encouraging a culture of mentorship is a powerful means of offering women the guidance, support, and tools they need to overcome professional obstacles. Effective mentorship not only benefits individual women but also contributes to the overall success of the enterprise. 

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Topics: Leadership, C-Suite, Diversity, #PracticalTips, #HRCommunity

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