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Creating More Women Leaders in the Workplace Needs Your Help

February 26, 2019

Our workplaces are about to enter a perfect storm. Within the next 17 years, 78 million Baby Boomers will retire. There are currently only 50 million Gen Xers to succeed them.

What do we do with a 28 million person gap?

Within this gap is an opportunity to consider new talent and diversity for a company’s leadership structure or on its board of directors. Enter the role of women’s leadership and gender equality.

More Women Helps Companies Grow
The financial benefit for representation of women is staggering. Companies with the highest representation of women on boards of directors obtain 42 percent return on sales and a 66 percent return on invested capital (source).  

While the stats are clear, the reality of women’s leadership is far from encouraging. Women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, hold 60 percent of all undergraduate and master’s degrees and are 47 percent of the U.S. workforce (49 percent if you look at college educated labor force). Yet when it comes to leadership roles, only six percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women.

Put a different way, for every one female CEO, there are four male CEOs named John, Robert, William or James (source). And for every female board of director member of S&P 1500 firms, there are 1.03 males named John, Robert, William or James.

Bias Against Women Is Ingrained
So how do we fix the problem? It starts with education. Training is an important first step when it comes to understanding gender equality and working to achieve it. After all, unconscious bias can affect any number of areas in the workplace, from recruitment to promotions to exit. 

At Eide Bailly, we started the First Focus Initiative to nurture a firmwide culture where women are as likely to succeed as are men. See the incredible results here.

Research has shown that unintended bias training as a means of educating employees can actually lead to behavior change. Paradigm found that 96 percent of participants left their training with the intention to reduce bias. Google has had similar results with internal training.

As a note here, unintended biases are exactly that: UNINTENDED. We view these biases through the filter of no victim, no villain. In other words, none of it is intentional. These thoughts lie within almost all of us. Need convincing? A Harvard global online research study of more than 200,000 participants found that a staggering 76 percent of all people are gender-biased and tend to think of men as better suited for careers and women as better suited for homemakers (source). This means both men and women hold these types of biases.

What Is Unconscious Bias?
A bias that happens automatically, is outside of our control and is triggered by our brain making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Women Viewed Differently as Leaders
Due to these types of unintended biases, we often associate leadership traits as equivalent to male traits. We expect men to have leadership qualities, to be assertive, competent and speak out. But these traits in women are viewed differently. We want women to be givers and sharers and pursue the common good. If a woman is assertive, she’s often seen as aggressive. 

Other common issues women face as they rise through leadership ranks include:

  • Negative view of failure. For women, failure is often associated with lack of skill. For men, it’s associated with bad luck. This also comes through in promotions. Men are promoted on potential. Women are promoted on history and accomplishments.
  • Lack of feedback. Constructive feedback is not always given. If it is, it’s handled with kid gloves.
  • Opportunities for development. Informal development often happens outside of the office—at happy hours, golf outings and more. When women aren’t included, they lose valuable time to not only learn about the business, but also be developed. Studies have shown women have less access to senior leaders overall.
  • Not being heard. In meetings or board rooms, ideas can be passed over or not heard. It’s important to hear and acknowledge everyone’s ideas. It’s also important to remember to seek input from all, not just those who are first to speak or who speak the loudest. One way to do this is by pointing out when someone’s idea was passed over: “Sally had a really good point and I think we need to hear it again.”
  • Selling themselves short. Women will often underestimate their performance and ability, while men overestimate. If you assign a large project to a female employee and notice nervousness or hesitation to accept it, this could be why. Instead of reassigning the project to someone else, keep pushing and encouraging the employee to do the work.
  • Not being recognized. Men easily accept recognition for their successes. Women, on the other hand, deflect recognition, chalking it up to luck or sharing the recognition with their team. 

Perception: Men Versus Women

Men Women
Feel like they need to meet 60% of the criteria to apply for a job Feel like they need to meet 100% of the criteria to apply for a job
Accept recognition for successes Deflect recognition to luck or share with the team
Overestimate their performance/ability Underestimate their performance/ability
Not expected to assist when asked, positively rewarded for helping out Expected to say yes to projects, negatively impacted by saying no
Assertive Aggresive
Promoted on potential Promoted on past history and accomplishments

Helping Women with Communication and Confidence Challenges

Women often hold themselves back, due in large part to their own unintended biases. For instance, a female professional might not seek promotion because they believe they don’t have the right skills to make them a leader, especially if they associate those skills with a male leadership style.

It’s important for companies to understand the communication and confidence challenges female professionals face.  

Here are a few tips for emerging female professionals:

  • Stop using disqualifying language. This includes statements like: “I may be wrong, but …” or “I’m not sure if this is what you’re looking for.”
  • Don’t include filler words, like “just.” Be more direct in your communication.
  • Leave out the details. Women often use a large quantity of detail and lose their audience in the process. Trim the detail and get your point across.
  • Use a strong voice. Ensure your voice isn’t trailing off or that you’re making it sound like a question. Firmly state what you’re trying to say.

In addition, can expand young professionals can expand beyond the limitations they set for themselves through the following:

  • Lean in. Show up for your own career and opportunities presented to you. Put yourself out there, even if you’re not 100 percent confident about it.
  • Don’t leave before you leave. Most often seen in parenting, women plan well in advance and then let that negatively impact their current career. Don’t only half do your job because you think you’re going to stay home once you have kids. Show up and be your best self every day.

Be proud of your accomplishments. Don’t just wait for others to notice your good work (commonly known as the tiara effect because we want someone to place a tiara on our head). Herald your accomplishments and your experience. You can miss out on valuable opportunities for new, expanded, rewarding projects if your abilities and interests aren’t known. 

Watch this video to hear what advice women partners at Eide Bailly have for young women professionals.

Learn More About Women’s Leadership
We recommend the following books and articles to help you learn more about women’s leadership and the role of unintended biases:

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