Women in Business: What Life Is Like for a Young Female Leader

November 29, 2016 Nicola Brown

women in business

It can be hard for women in business to envision what life will be like as a senior director or CEO because the landscape changes drastically as you climb the rungs in business, and the need to start breaking barriers becomes necessary. Forbes cited research from nonprofit organization Catalyst: “[Women] are 45 percent of the labor force, but only 39 percent of mid-level managers and 25 percent of senior managers. They hold 19 percent of board seats.”

While I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with these numbers—we shouldn’t be aiming for gender parity just for the sake of gender parity—there are other key pieces of information we need to seriously consider. One reason we should, perhaps, be working to change this, has been revealed by the Peterson Institute of International Economics: “An extraordinary new survey of 21,980 publicly traded companies in 91 countries demonstrates that the presence of more female leaders in top positions of corporate management correlates with increased profitability of these companies.”

So why are women so underrepresented in the upper echelons of business?

CEO Amanda Parker Shares the Struggles of Women in Business

Amanda Parker, CEO of SimplyInsight, a Toronto-based technology company, has faced many challenges as a young female leader. “People tend to invest and trust in people who look and sound like them,” she said. This is clearly one problem where changing the demographics of upper management is concerned—but in addition to these unconscious biases, sometimes the problem is more explicit. Amanda quoted the response of a potential investor she met with: “I’m interested. You’re smart, strategic, and aggressive. Not very common in women…” While comments like this may seem shocking, they are a very real part of what women in leadership positions face regularly.

Women in Business

Another reason Parker thinks more women in business aren’t reaching top positions? A difference in their approach to networking. “I notice men go into networking with a more transactional approach, exchanging quid pro quo career favors,” she said. “Women are fantastic relationship builders but fall behind at using our networks to get ahead. I’m guilty of this as well and am actively working on improving.”

Thirdly, Amanda believes a fear of failure plays a big role: “The fear of failure is huge, and typically men are taught that failure is okay and actually encouraged. I can’t say the same for women who are often encouraged to take a safer road.”

That fear of failure may not be unjustified when we take a closer look at the numbers. Even when women do take advantage of opportunities to get ahead, reports seem to suggest that they do face more pushback. A 2016 study conducted by LeanIn.org and McKinsey showed that women negotiate for promotions and raises just as much as men, but they face greater pushback when they do—meanwhile, corporate America promotes men at 30 percent higher rates than women during their early career stages.

One of the biggest challenges Amanda faces comes in the form of day-to-day misconceptions that happen regularly in more casual networking situations. “Oftentimes business and investment deals are done in more casual settings, at events, dinners, etc. My cofounder (who is male and older than me) and I sometimes find ourselves at these events together. If he’s in the same room, I notice that all the business related questions will be directly posed to him, his hand gets shaken first, and they look to him for the decision making. This happens even when it is known that I am the CEO and he is the technical half of our team. We both look at each other slightly puzzled and he now responds with ‘I don’t know, I’m not the CEO—but you know, Amanda is our CEO. She’s far more knowledgeable in this area, you should be asking her.'”

Breaking Barriers

How We Can Start Breaking Barriers

Many of the challenges women face in advancing in the workplace stem from a culture that has an ingrained set of assumptions about the relationship between gender and work that need to be changed. Here are Amanda’s tips and advice for leaders, managers, HR professionals, and everyone in between:

1. Be conscious that unconscious bias exists.

It’s like an undertow, hidden yet powerful and we all have it—men and women. It’s embedded in our culture, unfortunately, and the only way to combat it is to pay attention and have open communications about it.

2. Call out gender bias when you see it.

If you hear it or see it, say something. Often there is no malice intended and simply bringing it to attention can be very helpful. Bias comes in many forms subtle and not so subtle. Calling it out can be as simple as Amanda’s cofounder’s redirect when people ask him about the business first.

3. Create a plan for your employees.

Set up a structure and performance metrics to effectively and objectively evaluate all staff members for promotions and raises.

4. Create a culture of mentorship.

Employees shouldn’t feel hesitant to reach out for advice and mentorship. Encouraging more connections across different levels at your company will not only strengthen the culture but lead to more opportunities to identify and maximize everyone’s strengths. Make these forms of communications a priority.

Amanda said the best advice she’s ever received was “‘Go for it, what’s holding you back?’ It’s simple and meaningful. Is there a promotion you could go for? A raise that you could ask for? An opportunity to start your own business? Do it! I also have to remind myself of this often but it really rings true. Don’t be afraid of breaking barriers.”

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