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Women in Leadership: Challenges and Opportunity

Throughout my career, I’ve been knee-deep in the work of higher education – specifically, empowering other women to seize the day, follow their dreams, and accomplish their goals. A believer in the power of education myself, it’s easy work for me to do. There’s nothing better for me than hearing from a Pre-MBA woman with news of her MBA acceptance or a recent MBA alumna with an update that she’s landed her dream job.

It follows that when I heard about Carnegie Mellon’s Leadership and Negotiation Academy for women, I knew it would be a great learning opportunity. I was prepared to take what I learned from the content and pass it forward to young college and Pre-MBA women. What I didn’t anticipate was how much the content would personally inspire me and call me to action.

Reviewing the Facts

To get started, we reviewed the current state of women in leadership.  Although women make up 60% of college graduates, there is a stark under-representation of women in business leadership:

  • Only 14% of Fortune 500 senior executives are women
  • 8% of top earners are women
  • 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women

During the first several Academy sessions, we reviewed disheartening studies highlighting implicit biases that work against women in the workplace.  There are subconscious associations aligned with men (competence, independence, assertion, and self-orientation) that differ from the associations we align with women (kindness, helpfulness, support, other-orientation.)

These implicit biases affect how we perceive women, their ambition, and their leadership potential and competence.

These biases aren’t isolated to women in business.  As late as 1970, the top 5 orchestras in the US had fewer than 5% women.  In the 70s and 80s, most orchestras adopted a blind audition process, where the identity of the musician was concealed from the judges by a screen.  Blind auditions increased the probability women would win the seat by 250%.

Of course, it’s not possible in day-to-day life to conceal gender, so we must work even harder to overcome subconscious bias to affect change.

So, what?

Why does this matter?  Is it only for altruistic reasons that we want to see more women in business, or does diversity positively impact the work we do?  One study, “The Difference” conducted by Scott Page in 2007, explains that diverse groups outperform homogeneous groups.  He also finds that the more complex the task or problem, the greater benefit of diversity.

With an increasingly complex business landscape, we can draw the parallel that more women in leadership ranks and decision making roles will improve productivity.

It is difficult to sit in a room of 25 women leaders and wade through every obstacle that may be working against us, particularly when research reinforces the benefits of diversity to the bottom line.  An optimist at heart, I was waiting for the good news.  Fortunately for me (and you!) the good news came, and the onus is on us to take action.

Taking Action

After presenting the landscape, the Academy curriculum turned actionable.  In the second and third sessions, we explored power and influence, mission and motivation, and negotiation.  We kicked off one class with a presentation exercise where each participant explored the topic, “What I Want.”  The objective of this exercise targeted presentation and influence skills.

In this room of high-powered, ambitious and career-driven women, 25% of the presenters began their dialogue with an apology.  “I’m sorry I didn’t prepare.”  “Let’s set the bar low for expectations.”

This self-deprecation is common among women, but it undermines our authority.  Let’s be confident in asking for what we want!

We captured our presentations on video so we could watch for apologies and other actions that detract from our core message.

One exercise I found particularly interesting was on personal mission setting.  We focused on four questions:

  • Who are you
  • What are you trying to achieve
  • Why are you trying to achieve
  • How are you going to achieve

We also explored if our personal values aligned with our organizational values.  I’m fortunate to work in an organization that aligns with my core values of empowerment and empathy.  This alignment not only increases my professional satisfaction, but allows me to more fully impact my organization.

Asking for What We Want

Linda Babcock and Sara Lacshever, authors of “Women Don’t Ask” and “Ask for It,” both presented masterclasses in negotiation.

The cost of not negotiating your first salary is more than a half-million dollars over a career.  Babcock and Lachscever’s research not only finds that women don’t negotiate for as much or as often as men, but explores the psychological barriers women face when initiating negotiations.

Fortunately, negotiation is a skill that can be learned and practiced.  Recognizing the opportunity to negotiate is often the first step – so we need to approach our work lives with this lens to improve not only our satisfaction at work, but the productivity of our organizations.

My experience in the Academy for Leadership and Negotiation has been extremely enlightening and inspiring.  It has reinforced the importance of the work we do at Forté – the obstacles that persist, but the progress we make when we overcome them.

The work we do individually to develop as leaders helps to pave the way for other women if we share what we know and learn.

Krystal Brooks is Director of College and Pre-MBA Programs and Outreach at the Forté Foundation.  She participated in the 2016/17 cohort of Carnegie Mellon’s Leadership and Negotiation Academy for Women.  Krystal lives in Pittsburgh with her family.

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