3 Ideas to Fix the Gender Gap in Leadership

Several years ago, I found myself in the gap. I realized that I didn’t know very many women who were raising young children while in leadership roles with a working spouse. I could count about five in my network. I decided to invite these five women to dinner. I’m not sure what my goal was other than perhaps to feel less alone. That first dinner was fascinating, cathartic and an absolute blast. We’ve tried to do it a few times a year since. Together we’ve faced deaths of parents, spouses with cancer, remarriages, children with physical and mental health problems, caregiver meltdowns, big promotions, new opportunities, and tough strategic and operational decisions.

So, when the article about women doing everything right and then work getting greedy came out this week, I forwarded it immediately to this group. After all, these women are the faces behind the statistic that only 6% of mothers work more than 50 hours a week. This crew is lucky if we can keep it under 60 hours per week, especially when you factor in travel. But we are also the face of the 75%, as only a quarter of top-earning women have a stay-at-home spouse. Our spouses work and are often as busy as we are. We credit our collective survival to good childcare and a willingness to forgo any ounce of perfection in the rest of our lives.

Last year, WeSpire did research with a major consulting firm looking to prove/disprove hypotheses about what drove leadership success of diverse employees. One of the very few hypotheses to be proven statistically significant was that women and underrepresented minorities who succeeded were more likely to have a stay-at-home spouse. The manifestation of that reality today is a lack of gender diversity in senior ranks, but based on trends in their younger employees, it’s becoming a more obvious generational gap. Ever since we did that research, I’ve wondered what I would do if I were the CEO of that consulting firm. What would I change so that anyone can become a leader, without their partner being forced to step back?

The article advocates for rearranging the work to reduce hours and that is certainly a critical systemic factor. But how do we also create cultural norms that acknowledge most employees have dependents? And whether they are male or female, single or married, young or old, they want to be part of their lives.

Here are three ideas:

  1. Embrace and support remote work and flexible hours
    The consulting firm had a strong belief that the client relationship would suffer if everyone wasn’t sitting in a conference room together all week. Many cultures still require most people to be in the office everyday. I value in-person connecting, but there is rarely a good reason to be on client site or in the office every day. Remote tools have significantly improved and it’s easy now to have great meetings, sales calls, and presentations virtually and that supports flexible schedules. The key is to ensure senior leaders make using them normal and accepted, particularly for meetings before 9 and after 3pm.
  2. Make dependents a visible and accepted part of work
    I am reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography to my daughter right now. One of the most poignant scenes is of a job interview where her childcare falls through. She ends up going to the interview with a three-month old on her lap. She gets the job.

    There is no part of me that wants to do a job interview with a baby on my lap. But it does highlight that there are cultures who embrace the whole family better than others.  Leaders should consistently ask, ‘Is this activity, expectation or policy inclusive of our employees who have dependents?” as well as think about how dependents might be able to be part of the employee experience. On-site daycare, like what Patagonia and Timberland provide, is certainly a start. Is there also a way to bring aftercare or sickcare to the workplace? Could more workplaces offer elder or pet care?  Could more company events, like sales incentive trips and holiday parties, be better structured with the whole family in mind?
  3. Provide benefits that make the rest of life easier
    My experience with these five women is that we focus intensely on work and family, but everything else is outsourced, fits into tiny buckets of time, or just doesn’t get done. With that in mind, leaders can think about what provides the most support for “rest of life”. Certainly onsite exercise classes and dry cleaning is common. I’ve heard of company cafeterias that offer healthy, ready-to-heat meals at night. If you’ve seen my windshield wipers, you know I need onsite car repair. When putting together benefits, ask employees what else, in addition to work, is standing in the way of them spending more time with their families and problem solve accordingly.

For a company to be a force for good in this world, they can not rely upon an economic or talent model that assumes their employee will have someone else that makes their family function. Because that reliance is inherently sexist. A forward-thinking organization embraces that most employees have something(s) or someone(s) who depend on them, and enables success on both fronts.

Quote of the Week:  Women don’t step back from work because they have rich husbands. They have rich husbands because they step back from work.

Claudia Goldin

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