Rising to the Top

Rising to the Top

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Women who want to move into the lead cannot wait while men decide to hand over the prizes.

It seems that the pipeline to the board is drying up. Women only filled 14 per cent of the roles one rung below the boardroom, according to a 2012 analysis of the 50 most valuable UK companies conducted by the Guardian. This is lower than the average percentage of women on boards.

Faced with this kind of situation leaders are taking matters into their own hands. So what are the most effective strategies that leaders can adopt to help others up the leadership ladder?

Cary Cooper, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology & Health at Lancaster University Management School, says: "To get more women on to boards we need a more reliable pipeline. Otherwise we will end up with a few celebrity women board members, and one failure will reflect badly on all women."

It's not just about equality. There is evidence that having women in senior positions improves stock market performance. Michel Ferrary,  professor of Human Resource Management at SKEMA Business School, France, and creator of the Femina Index of companies whose management teams are at least 35 per cent female, has shown that these companies performed better during the financial crisis than more masculinised teams. 

So what problems are preventing women in mid to senior management make the final step up to the board?

In some cases it’s a question of attitudes - those of women and men. Cooper says that many women at mid to senior level drop out. "It may be because men feel threatened so they play organisational politics to scare women off." he says.

Even without this, he says, some women may see the male-dominated politicking that characterises the higher levels of many organisations as unattractive and just opt out.

Alternatively women may be content to stay where they are. "Many great middle-tier female managers who could easily rise to the very top simply don't." says Cooper.

Another issue is the fact that women are less likely than men to draw attention to their successes. "Women do not promote themselves and their successes as much as men. They feel that their performance is noted without that - which may not be the case.

It's tempting to assume that women fail to promote themselves because of a lack of self-confidence, while self-confident men wave their success in the faces of superiors. In fact it's the other way round", says Cooper.

"It's because deep down men are less self-confident that they tend to talk themselves up," says Cooper. Women meanwhile, are more likely to be content simply knowing that they have done a good job without needing to shout about it. As a result their successes are less likely to be known about at the top. "Women need to talk up their successes." says Cooper.

What can leaders do to help?

First and foremost, become a mentor. "Women benefit from senior level mentors who do not feel threatened or jealous of their mentee." says Cooper.

Women do not necessarily need a mentor who is female, however. Cooper says: "Male mentors may often be willing to help, especially if they have daughters. They may be better at guiding less senior women through the inevitable politics at the senior level of an organisation, because men tend to be better at that. They are also often better at knowing the right people to cosy up to."

The help of a leader can also ensure that the achievements of women are heard about in the right places.

Senior leaders should also advise women lower down the hierarchy not to focus too much on perfection. This sounds counter-intuitive but it's not, says Cooper:  "Women tend to stick to a piece of work until they reach a 95 per cent perfection level. Men on the other had are content with 75 per cent, giving themselves extra time to engage in organisational politics, which raises their profile."

If more women are to get into the leadership pipeline, existing female leaders must avoid the Queen Bee syndrome, says Cooper. "Many women at the top were never helped by anyone on the way up so they don't feel the need to help others wanting to follow them. Many still feel threatened by other women climbing the ladder," says Cooper.

He recommends that leaders who find themselves feeling this way should ask themselves how they would feel if their daughters were treated like this.

Finally he advises women to stay positive. "There are not enough women in the board pipeline yet but don't get discouraged - things will gradually improve."

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