In 2020, just 37 executives of Fortune 500 companies were women — a record high, but still far too low. While many vocal advocates have called for more women to advance into the C-suite, one thing is certain: no one makes it to the C-suite in a day.
Women need support at every level of their careers to reach the heights of business leadership, and that means fixing a pipeline which, at the moment, has leaks and cracks all along the way.
Where Are the Cracks?
The cracks where women “leak” out of the leadership pipeline come in many forms.
A massive hole was created, for example, by the COVID-19 pandemic. This loss of women from our workforce — 100 percent of net job losses in December 2020 — will affect the number of women in leadership positions for years to come.
If anything “good” can be said to have come from this, the pandemic exposed just how vulnerable women still are to the pressures of caring for children and other dependents in comparison to men, who simply did not fall out of the workforce in numbers anywhere near that of women.
Talented leadership candidates also fall out of the pipeline due to workplaces inhospitable to them. That might be represented by a lack of support for up-and-coming female leaders, of course; but more insidiously, that may be due to unconscious bias, microaggressions, and an environment that makes especially women of color feel unwelcome.
How Do We Patch the Pipeline?
Patching the pipeline for female leaders must start from the bottom up. At NEW, we’re committed to “Advancing All Women.” Companies must commit to doing the same.
A recent study by Pinsight found that men were three times more likely to be identified as candidates with leadership potential. Demolishing bias in promotions takes work, and for the companies willing to do so, NEW is here to help.
We’re piloting a program, “Beyond Allies,” designed to create male allies in workplaces to ensure women have support at every level of their career journeys. Male allies are critical in supporting women as sponsors, as mentors, and by helping clear the path to success of the insidious barriers of bias.
Support for Women of Color
That support needs to be all the stronger for women of color.
NEW’s own research study, Advancing All Women 2018, found that women of color could hold one in four manager, senior manager and executive roles by 2027 if companies implement strategies that address hiring, promotion and turnover challenges that affect their workplace experiences.
We know that many companies simply lack the cultural and infrastructure support to ensure women of color get a fair shake. Creating architectures of understanding and eliminating unconscious bias is the path forward. Only systemic action, and education to create understanding of the unique challenges women of color face, will help.
NEW recently launched our DEI Workshop Series for this precise reason; to help our partners ensure women of color in their workplaces can bring their whole selves to work. With greater understanding, businesses will not just be more welcoming to women of color — they’ll be poised to take advantage of the unique strengths and experiences they bring to the table.
Creating Strong Leadership
Education and training for management are one key step, but helping women upskill and gain confidence in their leadership potential is also of critical importance.
At NEW, we offer numerous opportunities for women to self-assess their strengths and weaknesses, and to bolster the critical skills they need to shine as leadership candidates. When women are confident in their ability to lead, and the barriers in their way have been removed, a brighter future awaits us.
Companies that create welcoming environments for women and provide them with career support will find themselves with more women in leadership positions, and will be helping to patch the pipeline from the ground up. By building male allies to sponsor women’s careers, supporting women of color, and providing women with the leadership development support they need, we’ll create a path to success that will serve women long into the future.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.
Sarah Alter is president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, a learning and leadership community representing 13,000 members in 22 regional groups in the United States and Canada. Learn more at newonline.org.