When a woman is in a leadership role at a company, some people might say that she’s at the height of her career. She’s building high-performing teams, proven herself as someone who can deliver and showing others the way to career success through mentorship programs.
But who says her impact should stop there? Believe it or not, there can be a “glass ceiling” for a woman in a leadership role – where once she reaches that senior position, companies pay less and less attention, assuming she’s reached her full potential or that she’s happy where she is.
On the contrary, a recent survey asked 1,000 senior business leaders if their organization gave them the time and resources necessary to further develop their leadership skills. Nearly 80 percent of women said no (compared to 66 percent of men).
Add to that a study by Professor Kelly Shue of Yale, Alan Benson of the University of Minnesota, and Danielle Li of MIT, which found that women are 14 percent less likely to be promoted year after year, compared to men. Why, you might wonder, does this gap in perceptions exist? Because, according to the study, women aren’t seen to have as much leadership potential as men do – even though women’s performance is consistently rated higher than men’s.
“Women get progressively lower potential scores relative to their actual future performance as we rise up the corporate ladder,” Professor Shue says. “So this is going to contribute, I think, to a stronger and stronger glass ceiling the higher up we go.”
Also called the “Prove It Again” bias, men are more likely to be judged on future potential, while women are more likely to be judged on their past performance. As a result, many women are unable to propel their leadership careers forward or make a larger impact, despite being proven, time-tested leaders.
Organizations must actively work against these biases to support women in leadership roles. Not just that, but organizations need to grow and invest in women leaders, rather than seeing them as fully finished.
How to support women in leadership roles
According to a study by the American Economic Association, women are less likely than men to have a positive view of their abilities as a leader. Not only can this discourage women from seeking leadership roles in the first place, but if a woman is already in a senior management role, it can dissuade her from seeking out higher-tier promotions.
That’s why organizations must do what they can to make women feel like they belong in their current position and just as important, that they can achieve bigger things. Here’s how:
1. Provide training for the C-suite
Too often, when I attend women’s leadership conferences, the most senior women aren’t given training for their particular level. While they are expected to mentor other employees, senior management at any organization needs training just as much as every other employee. After all, they are navigating fluctuating industries and outside forces, managing talent, competing for market share, and supporting tough company goals. Employers need to provide women in leadership with opportunities for cutting-edge training matched to their senior level, so they can scale their impact.
2. Interrupt gender bias in people decisions
One of the areas where gender bias creeps in consistently is around people decisions…for example who to hire, promote, and mentor. When employers see the prove-it-again bias at play – where women leaders are held to a higher standard than men – they need to disrupt it. For example, let’s say you’re on a hiring committee for an executive role. You hear a female candidate, “Sarah,” being dismissed as a viable hire compared to a male candidate, “Greg.” A simple action you can take is to intervene by prompting a comparison. You could say to the group, “Wait a minute, how is Sarah’s 15 years of marketing experience different than Greg’s?” or “What about Greg’s experience signals that he’s got more future potential in this role than Sarah does?”
3. Ensure she has a C-suite sponsor
Women need sponsors, even women at the top. Why? Research shows people with sponsors experience faster advancement to higher career levels, enhanced perception of their leadership by others, and a greater sense of well-being, including increased job and personal satisfaction. By gaining a sponsor – a woman also gains some of that sponsor’s influence. That means her sponsor advocates for her and her projects behind closed doors with other leaders and meaningfully, advocates her future potential. Given that 92 percent of women do not feel comfortable asking for a sponsor, employers can play a role in ensuring women are afforded these career-enhancing relationships by match-making sponsor-sponsee pairs and creating structured sponsor programs.
4. Pay her what she deserves
We already know women are underrepresented in the C-suite. But building on this troubling finding is the fact that even women who climb their way to corporate America's highest ranks are paid less than their male counterparts. Recent research shows that the highest-paid senior executive women earned 84.6 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. This not only strengthens the urgent call to compensate women and men equivalently, but it also reinforces the need for companies to do salary studies and to transparently disclose pay rates. After all, sunlight is the best disinfectant, right? In addition, women’s lower pay at executive levels only reinforces the need for sponsors.
One study showed that women with sponsors are paid 10.2 percent higher than those without one. The fact that Black and Hispanic women are the least likely to have a sponsor underscores the need for white male executives to actively partner with those who don’t look like them. Fair pay is a basic form of respect - and for women, this is long overdue.
Women in senior positions don’t just possess the ability to lead – they possess the potential to excel further in their careers. …To become CEOs of major organizations, to be sought after authorities, thought leaders and movement makers. Organizations would do well to support their continued success and, as a result, will shrink the wage gap, bring more diversity to high-level positions, and improve their bottom line.
Selena Rezvani is a women’s leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask – And Stand Up – For What They Want." Through in-person training and online courses via LinkedIn Learning, Selena teaches professionals how to be fierce self-advocates and carve out leadership paths on their own terms. Follow her on TikTok, Instagram and LinkedIn.