Written by Jan Turner Tuesday, September 04 2012
|“Men know the game, like the game and play the game. Women may not even know that there is a game.”
-- Joanna Barsh, McKinsey and Company
Sponsorships, Promotions, Exposure
According to Joanna Barsh, taking women to the top in corporations calls for a variety of solutions, such as strong sponsor alliances, giving high-potential women exposure to their CEOs and accelerating the rate of promotions for women earlier in their careers.
Barsh, a director in the New York office of the global consulting firm McKinsey and Company, led the research for a new, in-depth study of talent pipelines and gender diversity at 60 Fortune 500 or similarly-sized companies.
The results of the study, which involved 350 executives and 4,000 employees, are detailed in the report Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work. It is co-authored by Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee, a principal in McKinsey's San Francisco office.
Companies included Adobe Systems, Citigroup, Con Edison, Ernst & Young, General Motors, Humana, Time Warner, UPS and many others across the corporate world and the nation.
The Fat Funnel and the Steady Pipe
The 60 top corporations from the study generally demonstrated two pathways to success. Those with the highest female retention rates are what Barsh terms “steady pipes.” Steady pipe companies have fewer women coming in at entry level but more women staying and reaching the top, Barsh explains.
“Fat funnels,” on the other hand, have more women entering, but various blocks and leakages prevent women from reaching the C-suite in sizable numbers. The research reveals that women pretty much hold their own up to the director level but start to lose ground at the next three levels: vice president, senior vice president and C-suite.
Failure to Flourish: The Mid-Level Stall Out
Barsh says that many factors contribute to women’s lack of advancement beyond directorships, including a tendency among women to be contented in their current jobs, especially if they are rearing families.
Compared to men, Barsh says, “We found a higher percentage of mothers who were happy in staying where they were. Once you are more familiar with a job, you are more in control. You can manage your hours and your schedule. You are also more comfortable and less inclined to be uncomfortable again.”
High Marks on the Grit-and-Stick Scale
Interestingly, Barsh says that the women executives at male-dominated energy, industry and tech companies tended to stick. Barsh says the high retention of women in these settings appeared to be tied largely to two conditions: “Those women tended to say ‘I want these hard skills’” (even if the companies had slow promotions and lousy maternity leaves). And, Barsh smiles, “They knew what they were in for.”
“We found that the women tolerated great levels of resistance and powered through it because of grit and a hard work ethic,” says Barsh. “I talked to one woman who was called to the plant with a problem at 2 a.m. She got her toddler out of bed, went to work, put the toddler in front of the TV and set about solving the problem.”
Are You Building Your Own Obstacle Course?
What does Barsh see about women who are trying to make it in corporate America? She sees barriers that are external – like a lack of commitment in the C-suite and cultural biases – as well as internal barriers, such as women’s own mindsets.
Those mindsets include attitudes such as:
- I don’t like politics. Of the 200 women executives interviewed for the study, only 59 percent said they aspired to the C-suite. The number one reason for opting out the race? Politics. Barsh says that women should recognize that there are “good politics” (getting the right people to do what is needed in order to get the project done) as well as “bad politics.” Bad politics – lack of honesty, lack of transparency, people promoted beyond their competency – reflect dysfunction in the top team, Barsh says.
- I don’t want to play the game. “Men know the game, like the game and play the game,” says Barsh. “Women may not even know that there is a game. They may not know that the boys are all going out for drinks after work.” Barsh explains that men are better at recognizing that these kinds of relationship-building activities, which provide opportunities for bonding and aligning, are actually a part of work.
- Okay, I’ll play the game, but it has to be fun. Games are not always good times and grins. Barsh says that one woman she interviewed who agreed to play golf with the boss said, “It was the worst day of my life!” For women, game-playing can also take grit.
- My sponsor should be my friend. “Women make the mistake of judging sponsors like they judge friends,” says Barsh. In truth, a sponsor may have the personality of a wolverine and the gentle touch of Genghis Khan, but still be a winner at sticking his neck out to open doors for you.
- Quality work equals success. Not always. “Women tend to value good work. They believe that good work gets noticed,” says Barsh. In truth, a strong sponsor and having the courage to leap through the doors your sponsor opens may take you farther faster.
What’s It Going to Take?
Let’s face it: Despite all the talk and strategizing, men still rule corporate America. McKinsey’s numbers show that just 14 percent of women serve on executive committees, and only three percent are CEOs. What’s it going to take to break the spell?
Barsh says that the change needs to happen top-down. Rock-solid, hands-on leadership in the C-suite is critical – leadership that doesn’t just “speak to” women’s advancement but that actively implements programs and policies that work. In addition, corporate diversity leadership needs real clout in the organization.
Pervasive sponsorship is key. Barsh says that sponsor activities should be embedded in both the company’s leadership profile and in performance reviews.
There should also be a “pay it forward” ethic: Sponsored women should be held accountable for sponsoring two or three other women (and men) at their own or lower levels. This is a form of leadership that can be measured and one which is at the core of succession-planning.
The Mid-Career Load and Launch
For corporations that already have the aforementioned building blocks of gender diversity in place, the next step is to focus on the area that can have the most impact on reshaping the leadership pipeline: women in the middle.
“Changing the game for middle managers is a crucial piece of the solution,” according to Barsh. This includes recognizing that women often reach the level of manager and director just as they are starting families.
“The company is better off trying to keep women in the game even during the five or six years of heavy family responsibilities,” she says.
One approach that Barsh advocates is to accelerate the rate of promotions for women earlier in their careers. In this way, women gain crucial line experience rather than stepping off of the C-suite runway into staff positions.
For companies where international experience is a prerequisite for reaching the top, women need to be posted abroad earlier.
“Do it upfront because later a woman may not want to uproot her family,” explains Barsh. Again, strong sponsors are often are the facilitators behind this “early credentialing” process.
Shining for the Top Brass
Another essential component: exposing women to the top.
“It is important to see that groups of high-potential women gain substantive exposure to the CEO,” Barsh states. Strategies include inviting women executives to retreats and meetings where top brass are present.
Women, Barsh explains, are simply “not known” to higher-ups. This is often because of their reluctance to engage in men’s informal social rituals (which women think of as “not real work”) and because they are clustered at lower rungs on the ladder. Companies that are serious about advancing women need to find ways to get highly-talented women “known.”
It Isn’t Easy – But It Is Possible
As Barsh and co-author Yee conclude in “Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work,” advancing women is a financial imperative for corporations since it brings the most diverse talent to the top. It also benefits individuals of both sexes.
“If corporate leaders commit to changes that inspire more top women to stay the course through years of family responsibilities and competing interests, then all women and men benefit,” they write.
“It’s not easy, but the successful companies and inspiring women we met this year reinforce our belief that it is possible.”
More About Joanna Barsh
Joanna Barsh’s work on women and leadership has taken her to all corners of the globe and to more than 100 companies. Her passion was recently recognized with an appointment to the subcommittee on leadership for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's International Council on Women’s Business Leadership (ICWBL). Barsh is helping to shape a proposal for ICWBL to form a global leadership community for women.
The proposal advocates the development of a global senior leadership forum as well as programs for rising leaders based on Barsh’s work with the McKinsey Centered Leadership Program. The McKinsey Centered Leadership Program, which Barsh created and leads, features a video archive of more than 125 in-depth interviews with women leaders from around the world.
A New York City Commissioner on Women’s Issues, Barsh also is the author, with Susie Cranston and Geoffrey Lewis, of “How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life” (2011, Crown Publishing).
The Bert-n-Ernie décor in Barsh’s office? She has been a trustee of Sesame Workshop, the education organization responsible for “Sesame Street,” for 15 years.
More on closing the gender gap in corporate America:
Sarah Meyerrose, president of ION, thinks a major obstacle in for women in executive positions is that the ideal leader is still framed against a male backdrop.
The latest research on university campuses across the nation shows both progress and setbacks for women competing in the corporate workplace in the ongoing struggle to truly break the glass ceiling in 2012.
Not only is all-around workplace equality important from a moral standpoint, there is also an economic imperative to women's continued progress in the corporate world.
Jan Turner lives and writes in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia. For more than 20 years her articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, USA Today Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor as well as on wire services in the United States and abroad. Turner has written on subjects ranging from leadership and business culture to diversity awareness and faith-based organizations, and she has a nonfiction book underway. Turner has an advanced degree in intercultural communication and has traveled solo on many continents, exploring cultures from Ladahk and Sumatra to Malawi and Turkey, seeing first-hand the contributions and resilience of women.