Whether or not organizations are effectively recruiting, retaining and developing female leaders depends on who’s asked. University of North Carolina (UNC) Kenan-Flagler Business School’s survey “Women in Business,” released in March, found significant management-level and gender differences in the way business leaders perceive their firm’s efforts to recruit, retain and develop women into leadership positions. For example, according to the 925 talent management professionals surveyed, C-suite executives were generally more optimistic than lower-level managers in their perceptions of their organization’s efforts to develop women; and men tended to rate those same efforts higher than women.
Business leaders should be aware that these perception gaps can exist in their organizations and that they can have unintended consequences for female leaders’ development. Women’s advancement into senior leadership positions is a talent issue with bottom-line implications. Studies such as Thomson Reuters’ “2012 Women in the Workplace” survey and McKinsey & Co.’s 2007 “Women Matter” report have shown companies that lead their peers in breaking the glass ceiling tend to have higher growth rates in stocks and larger returns on equity.
Mind the Gap
While approximately half of the respondents in the UNC survey thought the number of women holding leadership positions had increased in their organizations during the past five years, the perception of these increases differed according to respondents’ job titles. For example, 60 percent of C-suite executives believed the number of women in leadership positions had increased during the past five years, compared to 38 percent of the manager-level respondents (Figure 1).
Further, C-suite executives (42 percent) and vice presidents (51 percent) were more positive in their outlook than managers (37 percent) in believing the number of women in leadership positions would increase in their organizations during the next five years.
These gaps also were evident at various management levels regarding the effectiveness of recruiting, retaining and developing female executives. Fifty-three percent of C-suite executives and 34 percent of vice presidents thought their organizations were extremely effective or moderately effective in recruiting female executives. However, only 28 percent of managers thought their organizations were extremely or moderately effective (Figure 2). More than two-thirds of C-suite executives (68 percent) thought their organizations were doing an extremely or moderately good job retaining women. By comparison, less than half of the managers surveyed (44 percent) thought their firms were doing an effective or moderately effective job retaining female executives.
Although nearly half of C-suite executives (49 percent) believed their organizations were doing an effective or moderately effective job developing female executives, managers were less positive in their outlook; only 30 percent of the managers surveyed thought their organizations were doing an effective or moderately effective job developing female executives.
There was one area in which all respondents agreed; there are far fewer women than men inhabiting a C-suite office in the organizations surveyed, and the number rises only slightly at the upper management levels (Figure 3, page 48). This disparity aligns with results of other surveys. A 2011 survey conducted by the management research firm Catalyst found that in 2011, women held only 16 percent of Fortune 500 board seats in the U.S. and only 14 percent of the executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies. Further, a Development Dimensions International study, “Holding Women Back: A Special Report from DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2008-2009,” found that more than 70 percent of the top 1,500 U.S. firms featured in the study had no women on the senior leadership team.
When asked how the number of female executives had changed during the past five years in their organizations, 65 percent of men versus 44 percent of women said it had increased. Men also tended to be more optimistic than women in their predictions about whether the number of women in executive positions in their companies would increase — 57 percent of male respondents thought it would increase versus 36 percent of female respondents.
The differences in perceptions between men and women continued when asked about their organization’s effectiveness in recruiting, retaining and developing female executives. More than half of the male survey respondents (53 percent) thought their organizations were extremely or moderately effective at recruiting female executives — the same percentage as CEOs when asked the same question. However, only 33 percent of the women surveyed thought their organizations were extremely or moderately effective in their recruiting efforts.
The data improved slightly when men and women were asked how effective their organizations were at retaining female executives. Overall, the survey found that both genders thought their organizations were doing a good job. However, men and women had different opinions on just how well their organizations were doing. Most men (73 percent) thought their organizations were doing an effective or moderately effective job in retaining female executives, versus 52 percent of women.
The majority of men (52 percent) and a third of women surveyed thought their organizations were doing an extremely to moderately effective job developing female executives. Only 4 percent of the men surveyed thought their organization’s efforts to develop female executives were not at all effective, as compared to 19 percent of the women surveyed. This could indicate a level of dissatisfaction among women in their organization’s efforts to develop them into senior leadership positions.
The survey also showed that developing women for leadership positions continues to be a medium to low priority for many employers. Nearly half of the respondents said the development of female leaders was not part of their organization’s strategic agenda. When asked about their perceptions on developing women for leadership roles, 52 percent of women thought it was not included in the business strategy, versus 31 percent of men (Figure 4).
These perception gaps have significant implications for talent leaders. Perceptions, accurate or not, inform how decisions are made regarding development for women. Talent leaders should use real data to drive decisions and measure success, and resist the urge to act on assumptions. It’s also important for talent leaders to communicate that perception-driven gaps exist to help others overcome them, or risk losing top female talent to the competition.
Perception vs. Reality
The gender-based perception gap reveals that men have a more favorable view of female leaders’ progress in business than women do. For example, more men (65 percent) than women (44 percent) reported an increase in the number of women holding leadership positions in the past five years. The reasons for this gap are as diverse as the people surveyed, but it may be fair to surmise that women’s outlook stems from firsthand knowledge of and experience with their employers’ attempts to support them. Further, women also may hold higher expectations about how effective — and how immediate — those efforts should be. Men, on the other hand, may know that these efforts exist, but may be less familiar with the details or efficacy of these efforts.
A similar argument could be made about the perception gap found between C-suite executives and lower-level managers. C-suite executives may be more aware of the efforts their organizations are taking to develop female business leaders. For example, 45 percent of C-suite executives cited new efforts to encourage mentoring for women, compared to only 24 percent of managers. C-suite executives may have more experience mentoring than managers, so their perceptions are closer to reality. Managers’ misperception can lead to dissatisfaction or worse. However, the opposite may be true. C-suite executives may fall into a rose-colored glasses scenario because if they are not involved in daily mentoring efforts, they may not know firsthand if these efforts are effective.
To overcome this perception gap, talent leaders should start with organizational strategy and link all talent development efforts to specific business goals and a measurable ROI, using metrics and data to guide decisions.
Mentoring and coaching can be effective activities to develop female leaders, but how individuals view these efforts can vary. Leadership programs designed specifically for women also can be valuable, but misperception can cloud program success. Negative perceptions among women can lower participation, and have a broader impact on employee engagement, satisfaction and retention. Talent managers need to be aware of these differences and take steps to ensure that perceptions match reality in their organizations.
There has been a fundamental shift in the composition of the workplace, and employers have been slow to react. Today, women comprise 61 percent of the labor force, are attaining college-level degrees at a faster pace than men and are the primary decision makers when it comes to purchases. Companies must reassess their efforts to recruit, develop and retain this key demographic, taking into account the perception gaps identified in this survey.
Better business leaders — men and women who can get things done and lead people and organizations — are needed today more than ever before. If organizations cling to a one-size-fits-all approach, their efforts to appeal to a broad spectrum of potential talent — including women — may fall flat and they will lose good talent to their competitors.
Kip Kelly is director of the Women in Business program at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.