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The Unwritten Rules for Getting Promoted Often Leave Out Women

When Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president in 1984, I was in high school. When Sarah Palin ran 24 years later, I was a partner at management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, raising toddlers.

Today, I am managing partner of the health care business at Oliver Wyman and chair of diversity and inclusion. I could not be happier to see Kamala Harris become the first woman finally elected vice president of the United States. I also believe it should not have taken us this long. So how do we capitalize on this moment and drive more progress, especially in business?

C-suite executive says inclusion and diversity are priorities. America’s workforce is filled with accomplished women. However, women are still passed over for the most senior leadership roles. 

Women older than 16 account for about half of employees, according to the Department of Labor. Yet fewer than 6% of the chief executive officers of the 3,000 largest companies in the United States are women, and only one in four executives is a woman, based on a Wall Street Journal study.

Something is getting in our way.

Oliver Wyman researchers spoke with more than 160 senior female leaders in business and surveyed more than 300 male and female executives on the gender leadership gap. We found that while men and women appear to be playing the same game, we have different interpretations of the rules. No wonder, then, that there is so much frustration, and that women are losing.

Rule 1: Know What Makes a Great Leader

Men and women agree that confidence is an essential leadership trait. Unfortunately, the agreement ends there. Beyond that, women valued collaboration and team empowerment while men favored directness and decisiveness. No surprise, then, that when men want to fill a senior role, their implicit views on what makes a great leader mean they rarely see a woman candidate as fitting the mold.

Source: Oliver Wyman

Executives who care about diversity should examine the track in their companies to senior management.

Rule 2: Know What Gets You Promoted

Women rank being “results-driven” as No. 3 in the top keys to promotion. Men rank it No. 10. Does this mean men do not care about results? No. But it does mean that men and women focus on different priorities.

We found that men spend more time on networking than women, who often describe “networking for networking’s sake” as unappealing and not something they focus on. As a result, men end up with more sponsors than women.

Rule 3: Know How to Be Likeable

As a society, we tend to expect different behaviors of women versus men. At the same time, Rule No. 1 says senior leadership positions go to the direct and decisive. The dilemma is that these qualities run directly counter to what society often expects from women.

The result? Direct and decisive look good on a man, but the same behavior on a woman is often seen as bossy and abrasive. So if leaders are supposed to be direct and decisive, women seem to be out of luck. They feel trapped; either they can be seen as not direct and decisive enough to make great leaders or as too bossy and abrasive to be likeable. That is a game that women are bound to lose — and so they do, all too frequently.

What can you do in your organization to make a difference and accelerate progress?

Make the invisible visible: Get curious about these hidden assumptions and behaviors and challenge your leadership teams to do the same. Once you understand how and where these unconscious biases hijack your best efforts, you can do something about them.

Sponsorship, the great equalizer: Many of those in senior leadership positions had sponsors who made a difference. Sponsors are more than mentors because they lend their own personal credibility and advocate for those they sponsor.

Sponsors are even more critical for women because their advocacy levels the playing field by effectively neutralizing unconscious biases. They also help women navigate and avoid pitfalls that result from the different assumptions we have about what is required for success and the path to senior leadership.

Source: Oliver Wyman

Do you want to ensure your daughters or granddaughters don’t face this same situation in another 20 years? If so, get curious and work to understand the biases we all have, and how they impact your organization.

Look at your inner circle at work, the people you go to first. Is it diverse? How many are women versus men? Now is the time to step up. Use your personal power within your organization to look at the challenge differently and start to create some breakthroughs.

This piece first appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

Terry Stone

Managing Partner at Oliver Wyman

Terry Stone is the managing partner of the Health & Life Sciences Practice and global chair for Diversity and Inclusion at Oliver Wyman.

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