Teaching Women the Joys of Power

03/09/2015 03:50 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

Here's a startling statistic: Less than one-quarter of mid-career professional women aspire to a position of power, according to research from the Center for Talent Innovation. And only 26 percent of U.S. women would unhesitatingly say yes if they were offered an executive leadership position in their profession tomorrow. After all the energy expended in trying to break through to the top, why are women turning away?

It's not a question of lack of ambition: A whopping 91 percent of mid-career, college-educated women in the U.S. say they're driven to succeed. And there are encouraging signs that the glass ceiling is slowly but inexorably cracking: When Cathy Engelbert officially becomes CEO of Deloitte LLP on March 11th, it will be the first time one of the Big Four accounting and consulting firms placed a woman in the corner office. It's a massive breakthrough for women in the professional services industry, which often trails behind other sectors in promoting women to high-level positions.

CTI's study, "Women Want Five Things," suggests that a profound misunderstanding prevents women from giving full rein to their aspirations. Too many women step off the fast track because they perceive an executive role delivering a hefty salary but little else that they value: the ability to flourish, to reach for meaning and purpose, to excel, and to empower others and be empowered.

In fact, this perception is contradicted by the reality reported by women in leadership positions. Our research shows that rather than a limitation, power can enhance both their professional and personal lives.

Yet too many women throttle down their career ambitions because the picture that's painted in the media of women in powerful positions isn't a model they want to emulate. Few stories extol their sense of fulfillment, intellectual excitement and sheer joy inherent in having the top job. Instead, the prevalent narrative is still one of sacrifice: the toll career ambitions take on one's personal life.

Is the glass ceiling a mirror, reflecting back a mirage of fear and doubt? It seems so.

To challenge this view, CTI launched the #JoysofPower campaign on March 8 (International Women's Day). Through this campaign, powerful women leaders will share their stories of influence, agency and impact as a result of having a top job to inspire more qualified women to stay on course. The campaign will run through April 30.

These are women like Denise Strauss, who wants her work not just to boost her firm's bottom line but also to advance a social good. As executive director of managed Markets Marketing at Boehringer Ingelheim, she manages 18 people who develop material, messaging, and programs for healthcare payers and providers. Her team makes sure, for example, that customers have the tools they need to help patients who transition from a hospital to a nursing home or rehab facility, providing them with the consistency of care they need to improve treatment compliance and reduce hospital readmissions. "I had a vision, out of college, of wanting to make a difference by improving patient health, and at BI, I see myself delivering on that," she reflects, adding, "It's important to me to be a role model to my family, my peers, and others who aspire to do good and contribute to society."

Or women like Isabel Gomez Vidal of Moody's Analytics, who believes that only by taking a leadership role has she come by the seniority, power and platform necessary to have far-reaching impact on the causes she values. Her current position as EMEA sales head with responsibility for more than 100 people in Europe, the Middle East and Africa is something she never imagined possible for herself when she started eight years ago at Moody's as a sales representative. But it's precisely her own journey that impels her to want from her career the opportunity to show others, through her leadership, what they're capable of. "I'm a strong believer in building people's confidence so they can achieve what they think is impossible," she says. "There's no question that the bigger my voice, the greater my impact."

That's not always a situation women on their way up -- transitioning from middle to upper management, from associate to partner, or from team contributor to industry expert - can imagine. They have it the hardest, and not simply because this period of their careers so often overlaps with childbearing and rearing. Rather, as women in power explain, it's because middle managers are still doing the producing themselves; they don't have the resources at their command or the staff to lean on to meet targets. Or they haven't developed a bench of talent to delegate the heavy lifting. Or they haven't yet learned to act through others, to leverage the strengths of their protégés, teams and networks.

This predicament blinds them to the liberating aspects of a leadership role, says Valerie Grillo, chief diversity officer at American Express. "It's as Marshall Goldsmith said: 'What got you here won't get you there,'" she observes. "Junior women operate in one environment, with one set of resources, within a narrowly defined role. They don't realize, you can't use the criteria based on your current experience to judge what's ahead. The higher you ascend, the more influence you have across the organization, and the more resources you have at your disposal to get things done." With title and recognized power, Grillo notes, women gain control over their personal lives as well as their professional responsibilities. "Power enables them to create the work/life balance they're so desperately seeking," she concludes.

Our research underscores the importance of helping women overcome this blind spot and power through to attain the kind of power that enables them to truly flourish. Because when women perceive that an executive role will satisfy, rather than subvert, their value proposition, they reclaim their ambition for leadership. Women who perceive that an executive role will fulfill their value proposition are more likely to strive for top leadership -- 34 percent versus 12 percent who do not anticipate that a powerful position will deliver what's important to them.

When women's value proposition is actually met by their employers, their aspiration to a position of power soars -- enough, we hope, to blast past the fears and doubts that make the glass ceiling seem so impenetrable. Let's fuel that aspiration by sharing the #JoysofPower. Visit to learn more and to get involved.