There has been significant media attention this year on professional women effectively balancing the demands on their time, particularly the trend of working moms exiting the workplace. But far less discussion has centered on the specific difficulties that high-performing, high-potential women have experienced regarding career progression during these challenging times.
Today’s high-change, fully remote workplace has created a new set of barriers to the advancement of women. These concerns should motivate c-suite executives to move quickly to engage these women leaders and focus on their career opportunities or risk losing top talent. Evolving communication norms and executive exposure are limiting women’s opportunities to position themselves for career growth – and intentionality is required.
Pathbuilders has gathered insights from a network of more than 4,000 high-potential women leaders and conducted deep-dive interviews and pulse checks with a cohort of 200 women at different levels of responsibility. What we’re hearing this year is distinctly different from previous feedback. It seems 2020 eroded confidence in even the most self-assured, ambitious, high-performing women.
Experienced leaders are citing challenges more typically seen in emerging leaders. We heard a real sense of loss about the absence of casual interaction with leaders. These insights reveal women leaders have deep concerns about missing out on advancement and opportunities to influence the direction of the organization.
Our research uncovered that women leaders at almost every level, from young professionals to vice-presidents, are expressing feelings of uncertainty and disconnectedness. There are concerns that the new normal will derail their career progression, causing them to seek opportunities with organizations where they feel more valued.
Meaningful career progression remains stalled
Countless studies have shown that organizations with gender diverse leadership realize better financial performance, higher market share and stronger brand reputation. And while talk of increased representation and development of robust, gender diverse talent pipelines is plentiful, progress has been modest at best.
The most recent McKinsey study notes that since 2015, the number of women in c-suite roles has moved from 17 to 21 percent, yet women’s advancement in manager, director and VP roles has inched forward less than 5 percent. Data on women of color indicate even faster fall off in representation at higher levels. We are not seeing the momentum shift required to change the face of executive leadership.
Headwinds overpowered tailwinds in 2020
In private conversations, women confide that the pandemic has put pressure on organizational dynamics. Women are consistently and independently sharing unspoken truths and apprehensions about their career progression and the strain on internal communications. These insights can be captured in four broad categories:
- Disconnectedness from direct managers—High performers see relationships with their managers as key to their advancement. Today, coaching from managers is limited, development opportunities are scarce and even seasoned leaders seem uncomfortable or unwilling to deliver corrective feedback to remote employees. Motivated employees fear being off-track or overlooked.
- Absence of informal learning opportunities—Upwardly-mobile individuals are missing the casual interactions with senior leaders that previously occurred before and after meetings, or side conversations in meeting rooms. They realize how much perspective they gained from these exchanges. Some are fearful they will miss out on special projects and sought-after leadership roles.
- Continued inequity for women of color—The pandemic has illuminated the barriers to advancement for black women. Difficulty navigating corporate culture and limited access to powerful networks, which were already challenging issues, have intensified for these women.
- Career mobility for star performers—High achieving talent, those who have the greatest impact on business results, know they can’t afford to lose traction in their careers. They are reassessing priorities and considering outside opportunities that no longer require relocation.
New managers: Navigating solo in choppy waters
Perhaps no group has been so significantly affected by the rapid redesign of the working world than newly-promoted managers. These leaders were thrust into territory that was unfamiliar to even the most experienced managers at a time when their teams needed them most (and with fewer resources available in their manager toolkits).
The shift to remote work meant that new managers missed out on opportunities to hone their skills with safety nets. They navigated the complexities of everything from employee equipment to team meeting design to mental health and social justice conversations. They found their leaders, perhaps feeling beyond their own comfort zones, were less able to coach as they might have pre-pandemic.
Women leaders in this segment are seeking attention, support and development while learning to delegate on the fly. Confronted with the awkwardness of teaching and training online, they are defaulting to simply taking on too much of their team’s work.
New managers are not alone in feeling uncomfortable in sharing constructive feedback. Women across levels of management tell us that the inability to control the environment causes cautiousness in their feedback. With partners and children also in the home, managers fear their conversations are not as private as when they were in-office.
Many first-time female managers have young families. They’ve wrestled with the volatility of school and childcare availability during the pandemic. The pressure to be always on, manifested in taking on too much, may have them questioning how to keep their careers on course without burning out.
Finally, there’s the awkwardness that comes with being new in a role and leading countless video-based conversations. Emerging leaders began urging us to provide presentation skills support. In digging deeper, we found the pressure to demonstrate leadership ability during online meetings caused them to lose confidence. When facial expressions, tone and body language are easy to scrutinize, it’s difficult to perform with skill and confidence.
Executive women: Career advancement left high and dry
Not surprisingly, senior level women are experiencing different issues. Women leaders who’ve climbed the corporate ladder are questioning themselves and their ability to influence outcomes. These women at the director and VP level have already proved their value and capabilities. They are career strategists, laser-focused on selling their ideas, having a seat at the table and attaining promotion to the next level.
Yet they also face difficulties with stalled career progression and more limited exposure to top-tier executives. Mentoring and relationship building with executives has ground to a halt and brief side conversations for informal bonding are largely a thing of the past with today’s hard-stop, online meeting format. Sixty percent of our program participants say promotions or special project opportunities are happening quietly, behind the scenes. What they want to know is “How can I be considered for that role?”
Some in our cohort expressed frustration that there has been less time for the big picture work because they are focused on block-and-tackle management. More junior challenges such as time management and delegation have surfaced as they conclude they can do the work faster themselves instead of piling on to already-taxed team members. All of this impedes executive women from the strategic initiatives that would position them for moving forward. After a full day of putting out fires and back-to-back Zoom meetings, many say their own work begins at 5 p.m.
Underpinning all of this is a new definition of executive presence. These career-focused professionals say they’re reluctant to share bad news or raise difficult issues during the limited time they have with executives. And although they are experienced leaders, the overloaded all-eyes-on format of video meetings can cause them to question themselves. Reading the many visual cues, from a raised eyebrow to a stifled yawn, can drive self-questioning. The grind of looking directly into your own face in online sessions multiple times a day can cause even the most confident to take a hit to their self-esteem.
Time for immediate action
The insights we’ve gathered lead us to conclude that immediate action is necessary to support and nurture a culture that moves women forward. Senior executives must be unapologetic in their focus on gender diversity by engaging in visible support for the leaders of tomorrow. Here are four effective ways to start:
- Proactively engage women in career conversations—Ensure women know their talents and abilities are valued. Hold leaders accountable for providing women with meaningful developmental feedback that prepares them to take on the biggest challenges. Require gender-diverse team composition on high-profile projects.
- Create real opportunities for exposure and dialogue— Challenge senior leaders to reach out and connect with top female talent. Build a framework for ongoing conversations with women to solicit their thoughts and concerns about the direction of the business. Be intentional about listening and acting on issues they raise.
- Call on a woman first in meetings—Research shows that when a woman speaks first, statistically more women will engage in the conversation. Data still show that women are disproportionately interrupted; this is only exacerbated in online meetings where they’re hesitant to talk over another person. Simply calling on a woman first encourages other women to pitch their ideas and fully engage in discussion.
- Invest in developing the talented women in your organization— Now is the time to develop and retain female talent. Diversity of thought and experience in an organization’s decision-making teams drives innovation, speeds solution building and yields better performance.