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The Real Reasons Women Are Not Advancing in Corporate America

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As a leadership developer and trainer of professional women, I've spoken with hundreds of HR and senior executive leaders the past 10 years about women, growth, and paving the way for women's ascension to leadership. What remains so disappointing and, in fact, shocking, is that despite the irrefutable business case for the need to balance corporate leadership ranks with more women, we're making very little headway in the way of lasting corporate change. Yes, there are Catalyst winners and other awards -- and great, progressive organizations doing their part -- but in the whole of corporate America, we're not seeing the substantive change that's necessary. Further, recent studies show that senior women are hit three times harder than their male counterparts in these tough economic times.

From my work, I've seen that there are five key blocks in the way of women advancing to the leadership ranks successfully. One of the most important factors is that organizations are not digging deep enough to uncover specifically how and why their organization isn't fostering women leaders successfully.

I'd like to ask HR staff and senior leaders of all businesses in this country to ask themselves this question: Do you know (based on sound research and data and frank and open conversations at your company) exactly why women are not sitting at your leadership tables in your organization? Do you have a handle on the specific part of the pipeline where you lose women, and why? If not, what step can you take this month to investigate as thoroughly as possible the barriers to women's leadership success at your company?

Only after you answer these questions can you develop effective, tailored programs and initiatives that will address your organizational gaps.

To get your juices flowing on these questions, below are what I've observed are the top five blocks that impede women's rise to leadership:

1) The differences between men and women are not fully understood or valued.

It's an indisputable fact -- women and men are different in many core ways, grounded in their neurobiology and their cultural training. (Read Dr. Louann Brizendine's books The Female Brain and The Male Brain for more info.) So much of men and women's behavior is programmed, hard-wired in our brains, and also culturally influenced. I've found, however, that in corporate America (which remains male-dominated at the leadership levels), the differences in women's style, approach, communication, decision making, leadership values, focus and "energy," are not at all understood or valued. Many organizations still make women "wrong" (consciously or subconsciously) for their priorities and styles that clash with the dominant culture. Further, the emphasis many women professionals and leaders place on connection, empathy, emotional cue-taking, consensus-building, risk-taking, mutuality, and questioning are often misconstrued as a "less-than" leadership style.

2) Life, family and work priorities clash fiercely.

Women are still performing the majority of domestic and child care responsibility in the home, even when there are two spouses working full-time. As long as women are bearing the children in our species, women will not view child rearing and child care in the same way as men do, and will prioritize the responsibilities around it differently. The best article I've read recently on this dilemma is Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." Slaughter covers every key dimension of the challenges women face today in their quest to become business and political leaders while also balancing what they want to be as parents and care-givers, and what has to change in our institutional policies to allow these dual priorities to be met. If you're outdated and closed-minded and believe that work-life balance or integration is a pipedream only for fools, then you're contributing to the problem.

3) Extreme work demands can drum women out.

The extreme demands of many 24/7 work corporate environments today represent an impasse to many women who wish to prioritize life outside of work more highly. I believe wholeheartedly that, despite what Sheryl Sandberg asserts in her powerful book Lean In, women are not less ambitious than men. It is the cost of ambition -- and the struggle women face in pursuing their highest professional ambitions -- that is at the heart of why we have so few women leaders today, and why women are achieving less and not reaching as high as men in corporate America.

4) Marginalizing of women is more common than we want to admit.

In great numbers, women are still being diminished, sidelined, suppressed, and thought less of because of being women and because they are different from the leadership norm (here's an example). Further, women are pushed aside regularly when they make their family priorities known or demand time off after having a child (and don't kid yourself -- this is a form discrimination to be sidelined for prioritizing time off for child bearing).

We can deny this all we want, but it is happening all across corporate America -- women are still considered "less than" in terms of leadership capability in many organizations. This will change in 50 or 100 years, and is changing radically now in the entrepreneurial world, but not fast enough in corporate America.

5) Personal accountability needs to be expanded -- women need to "lean in." I've read hundreds of comments and debates this month in response to Sandberg's well-researched and powerful book Lean In from women asserting that if we talk about how women are holding themselves back from leadership, we're blaming the victim.

I disagree with this line of thinking. Yes, the model needs revision most certainly, but this is a complex problem with many contributing factors. Within this construct, individuals have the power to take accountability, step up to what has to be done, and have the courage to make change, both on the individual level, and the organizational level. Women are today (and can become) great leaders and inspire other women to follow in their footsteps. I see it every day.

It is not all about the environment or men not doing their part. There are plenty of strong male advocates and supporters of women, and great male leaders who know how to pave the way for the high growth and engagement of both women and men (for an example, check out chairman and senior partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers Robert Moritz's keynote speech at Bentley University's Center for Women and Business forum). For true change to occur, we need to walk in partnership with our best male leaders. But to bring about real and lasting change, women must also learn to understand better the terrain they're operating in -- the ecosystem they're engaged in -- and power up their skills and accountability in order to navigate it successfully.

In the end, creating a pathway for more women in corporate leadership will require change on all levels -- individual, cultural, and organizational. But we must start with you and me, today.

What one step can YOU take -- either as a female committed to achieving more leadership authority, or as a female or male leader with the power and influence to bring about true change in your organization. What will you do?