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Women at the Top: Why Such Slow Progress?

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It is good to see more and more attention given to the importance -- and challenges -- of achieving gender diversity in business leadership. I celebrate the progress toward having more women at the top. But I am saddened by the slow pace of change.

Catalyst continues its important work of shedding light on issues about women in business. McKinsey & Company regularly focuses on this business issue through its Women Matter research. Sharyl Sandberg's book Lean In brought attention and debate from many. John Gerzema's 2013 book The Athena Doctrine brings compelling research to validate the need for leadership that incorporates feminine as well as masculine strengths. Harvard Business Review's September 2013 issue spotlights women in leadership. I have done my part, publishing a book, numerous articles, and over 100 blogs on the topic.

Lots of focus; yet painfully slow progress. Catalyst says that women in the Fortune 500 now make up 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of the highest paid and under five percent of CEO's. McKinsey suggests that even taking all the right and progressive structural steps cannot solve the problem unless "invisible mind-sets" are uprooted. The lead article in the HBR series, "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers" calls the invisible barriers that keep women from the top "second generation gender bias"; the authors urge businesses to educate everyone about this "subtle" obstacle to gender diversity. Subtle and unconscious mindsets (or biases) can only be uprooted if we first bring them to conscious awareness.

Let us start by giving names to a few of the obstacles for women created by unconscious ways of thinking. All have something to do with differences in masculine and feminine ways of being and doing things. Men and women all have both masculine and feminine aspects. The average man is more likely to operate with masculine strengths. The workplace naturally is built on masculine ways -- and this makes it more challenging for women, who, on average, demonstrate more feminine ways.

Here are three unintentional, non-malicious, unconscious mindsets that arise from masculine-feminine differences:

1. The "double bind": Women who operate in feminine ways (for example, using collaboration rather than competition) are not seen as leaders; women who demonstrate a more masculine style may be seen as pushy or arrogant and not be liked. This lose-lose proposition penalizes women -- and navigating it takes a lot of energy that would otherwise be put into quality work.

2. The "comfort principle": There is a natural tendency of people to form trusting relationships with those like themselves. This can exclude people different from those in positions of power. Today, there are still many more white males at the top. The comfort principle can result in the exclusion of women from critical business connections, thus contributing to perpetuation of the current demographics at the top.

3. "Unconscious images": Leadership has historically been defined in terms of masculine ways of leading. Women, in appearance and leadership style, may not "look the part." They may be overlooked when a position is open, or there may be more focus on how they do things rather than the results they deliver.

In future posts, I will focus on each of these and other obstacles to gender diversity. Removing these obstacles starts with awareness of the unconscious mindsets that drive them. Think of the blind spot in your car. Like an oncoming truck, these mindsets pose serious threats. If we know they exist, we can manage them. We can consciously alter habitual ways of thinking and leading. Making unconscious mindsets conscious is how women will reach the top and share leadership with men! That is how business will capture the benefits of gender diversity in leadership.

Have you seen these unconscious mindsets create obstacles for people reaching their potential? Share your story!