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Dr. Bernice Ledbetter Headshot

Despite Regional Differences, Women Across the Globe Face Same Career Advancement Challenges

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Women make up half the workforce in nearly every developed country around the world; however, when you look at the levels of senior female leaders the numbers are sobering. According to Catalyst among the G7 Countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, and USA) women comprise only 21 percent of senior roles. That number inches up to 24 percent when all countries around the world are factored into the equation.

At Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management, we have a number of talented young women from China and Saudi Arabia in our programs. They are asking "how can I lead in my country? How can I help other women realize their dreams of being in leadership positions in my home country?"

These and other important questions prompted me to look more closely at leadership styles, opportunities and challenges in the U.S., Saudi Arabia and China. These three countries are at very different stages in advancing women in leadership and the evolution of women leaders in each country is an interesting tale.

Right now, women in Saudi Arabia are breaking new ground. For the first time in history, women are attaining higher levels of education, working more and starting their own businesses. There are two female Saudi Arabian CEOs in the financial sector, Lubna Olayan who made the Fortune's International list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and Nahed Taher. Ms. Olayan is the CEO of the Olayan Financing Company and Dr. Taher is the Founder and Co-CEO of the Gulf One Investment Bank. Research shows the preferred style of leading in Saudi Arabia is more hands-off or laissez-faire because leaders trust followers to complete their work. Slowly, policies and practices are changing, but for some women the pace is far too slow.

In China, women hold 25 percent of the top management positions. Chinese women are also increasingly running companies and sitting on boards. Seven Chinese women CEOs made Fortune's 50 most powerful list in 2013. At the other end of the spectrum, 53 percent of women working in China experience the "sticky floor", meaning they can't move out of lower positions. And women who have crashed through the glass ceiling express frustration at having to constantly prove themselves and exceed expectations in order to move up. In China, women tend to lead with an interactive style that promotes team building and harmony, which can come at the expense of career advancement.

In the U.S., women continue to be underrepresented in the top ranks of leadership across Fortune 500 Companies. Less than 2 percent of American women reach CEO positions and only 16 percent end up in the C-suite. There are 23 women CEOs on the Fortune 500, the magazine's annual list of the top 500 U.S. companies. Nearly all of those 23 companies have significant operations outside the U.S., which means to a great extent these companies are international and even global. U.S. companies have a great opportunity to advance women in leadership in other countries where they operate. Since we are ahead of where China and Saudi Arabia currently are American companies can use their influence to help advance women in these regions.

My research and experience working with American, Chinese and Saudi Arabian women has led me to the conclusion that despite regional differences, the barriers to women's advancement are globally uniform. Because of discriminatory practices, women face challenges simply getting hired and entering the workforce itself can be monumental.

Some of the most prolific barriers include:

Differences and inequality in socially accepted behavior of men and women. Often there are double standards for what types of behavior - aggressive, outspoken, ambitious tendencies - that are supported for men, but not women. Think Sheryl Sandberg's "Ban Bossy" campaign to encourage leadership in girls.

Cultural expectations of women and gender role stereotypes. A public opinion survey by the Pew Research Center found that mothers are much more likely than fathers to have reduced work hours, take a significant amount of time off, quit a job or turn down a promotion in order to care for a child or family member. Work expectations and policies often make it difficult for women to meet the dual priorities of being a mother and having a career. As a result there are different barriers to career advancement for women and men; equal opportunities often do not exist.

Women's perceptions of career advancement opportunities. While some organizational cultures overtly support male-dominated leadership, others have a more subtle "glass ceiling" that effects how women view opportunities for advancement. When less experienced women see a limited number of women in senior roles it can impact their perceptions about how achievable career development and professional growth opportunities really are.

The good news is we have an opportunity to change the equation and bring more women into positions of influence and leadership! One important step is for companies with a global presence to create advancement opportunities that are not dependent on titles, but merit. For example, adding responsibilities to women who have a track record of stepping in to lead and managing complicated assignments. True change--for all workers, both men and women--will happen only when the culture of an organization can accept nontraditional ways of working without threatening the career progression of nontraditional workers.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, aptly said in her book Lean In, "in the future there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders." I could not agree more.

Dr. Bernice Ledbetter is Practitioner Faculty of Organizational Theory and Management at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management. Her research and teaching interests focus on leadership and values, especially gender differences, as well as on moral developmental and non-western approaches to leadership. She is a Principal in Ledbetter Consulting Group and has worked extensively as a career management consultant and team performance coach for individuals and major organizations.