Female Executive Leadership in America – A Tipping Point (An OpEd)

woman leaving

I was reading the article, “The Invisible Workload That Drags Women Down” in the May 2017 issue of Money that looks at the unpaid burden of running a household. It’s a great read, if you get the chance. I also love that they have an insert that looks at it from the male perspective as well. But reading the article reminded me of a soapbox I’ve been on for a while. It’s a topic I’ve shared with my closest circle but haven’t written about to this point. So, here it goes.

Even with all of the discussion around equal pay for women and the gender pay gap we are missing an even larger point – the potential extinction of female executives in the Corporate American landscape. If this issue is not fixed, we stand to lose one of the greatest competitive advantages that corporations have.

Research shows that companies with women in executive positions, and even more specifically in the C-suite, add 6% to net profit margin compared to those without. Laura D’Andrea Tyson, an economics and business professor at the Haas School at the University of Berkeley, told a panel at the 2016 World Economic Forum that women improve innovation and complex decision-making. With Baby Boomers retiring, GenXers leaving to start their own businesses, and Millenials opting for a more fulfilling and balanced life than climbing the corporate ladder, the threat of the extinction of female executive leadership is real. While there isn’t much that can be done to keep Baby Boomers from retiring we can do things right now to save our current and future generations of female business professionals.

How would I know?

I’ve always had very lofty career aspirations that included letters in my title and a corner office on the top floor. So, I started my career in corporate America working in a fast-paced, high-stress environment for an international company. Working 60 hours a week to “prove my worth” I realized I was at a disadvantage. My male colleagues were married with children but almost every single one of them was married to a woman that didn’t work outside of the home. I would arrive one day a week at 5 AM, would put my daughter to bed at night and then log back in to continue working, and was sending emails at midnight just to prove how committed and dedicated I was to my job. I was killing myself trying to keep up.

Years later, I found myself at a crossroads. Do I continue killing myself working for others on their terms or do I begin working on my own terms? So, I chose to join the ranks of female entrepreneurs and launch Minerva Management Partners – a vehicle by which I can support my fellow working women in creating the business and career of their dreams.

Now I coach really smart, driven, goal oriented women every day and it breaks my heart that they – almost without exception – face a point in their career where they start to question why they are killing themselves and have to make a very difficult choice, do they stay true to their original career ambitions or do they get off of the hamster wheel and take control of their life? Do they stay because they love what they do or do they leave because it’s just not worth it any more, especially with the gender pay gap?

None of the women I work with that are faced with this decision would opt to leave their positions if they thought there was any other way. For the most part they enjoy what they do but they hate the guilt, shame, and exhaustion that come from trying to keep up at work and at home. They would love to stay where they are if they could earn equal pay, work with more autonomy, and play a leadership role. According to a 2014 survey by PayPal, 55% of American women who leave corporate positions to start their own business leave to achieve work-life balance. Having a large number of female entrepreneurs is great, but not at the expense of great female corporate leaders. When you look at it in terms of women graduating from college at higher numbers than men and the women who make it into management positions are outperforming their male peers in several areas – can we really afford to have women leave companies in droves because they don’t feel they can be successful both at work and at home?

I believe we are at a tipping point. If this is not fixed women are going to continue to leave traditional corporate jobs and new generations aren’t even going to try.

I also believe that if we continue to focus solely on the gender pay gap we will miss the bigger picture. Fixing the pay gap, while imperative, only makes it better for a little while because it doesn’t fix the issue that professional business women are killing themselves in a system and a business success culture that is broken. An amazing side effect of correcting the problem is that fixing this culture not only helps women but men as well. Can you imagine a world where women and men alike are able to give their very best at work because they are given the time and freedom to be their very best at home? Companies will see increased productivity and families will see increased presence at home. Employees across the board will experience less stress, guilt, and shame while experiencing more fulfillment.

I want to issue a challenge to all companies, large and small. For the most part, this is not policies and procedures issue. Most companies today have decent vacation and sick leave as well as maternity and paternity leave policies. The problem stems from the corporate culture of an organization. It’s more about the stares you get if you arrive at 8 AM and leave at 5:15PM because you obviously are not committed to your job. It’s the way people notice that you’ve stepped out for lunch three times this week. It’s the comments that are made about women and their potential inability to handle things once they have a baby. It’s the way that less impressive projects or assignments are given to someone because they protect their weekend time for their family. It’s the fact that companies think you owe them your entire life (24/7) in exchange for hiring you. If we continue the shaming of our corporate leaders/executives, especially women, who set boundaries between their work and family lives, we are going to lose them. Period.

So, I challenge companies to take stock of their current corporate culture to see if and where shaming and “guilting” occur.

I want to encourage you to audit your leave policies to see how many managers and executives actually take their earned leave and if they do, how many times their leave is interrupted by the office.

I want companies to stop rewarding the person who spends the most time at the office and start rewarding people for quality contributions to the team.

I want to encourage you to speak to all of your managers and executives, but especially your female managers and executives to see what can be done to make their lives easier. This interview process can be tricky because of lack of trust but hiring a third party to conduct those interviews can make it easier to get honest data.

Then start making small culture shifts. Note: these must take place from the top. Respecting vacation time, maternity time, and reasonable work hours without making anyone feel guilty or thinking they will be seen as less committed is a great first step. The list of changes that can be made is long but the rewards if the changes are made are great.

How many of you are in current working environments where you feel you have to choose between work or home? How many of you are in working environments who appreciate and encourage you to be your best at work and at home by respecting boundaries? I would love to hear those places that are doing it right so that I can include them in my research.

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