Road to Leadership Still Challenging for Women

Road to Leadership Still Challenging for Women

PublIshed on Apr 6, 2023

Katy Brooks, CEO, Bend ChamberBy Katy Brooks, CEO

This article first appeared in The Bulletin on April 2, 2023

As we close out Women’s History Month — an annual celebration of contributions of women in history, culture and society, it’s a good time to recognize the role of women in business and consider whether we are making progress on increasing female leaders at work.

It can be difficult for women to reach top positions in business and I want to delve into some insights from female teachers and leaders in our community to explore what that journey looks like and lessons learned along the way.

First, it’s worth looking at some statistics. According to CNBC’s Marketplace, female CEOs lead only 8 percent of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. There are also lingering disparities, including a stubborn wage gap, which shows women’s salaries stagnant at about 82 percent of average salaries of men.

Yet despite the low showing of female leaders in top companies, Goldman Sachs recently found that companies with more women in management and board positions outperformed companies with mostly male leaders. With a sample of 600 stocks, companies with more female leaders saw their share prices outperform male led companies by an average of 2.5%.

A potential reason for this is the changing qualities of today’s business leaders as they deal with the aging out of Baby Boomers and the rise of Millennials and Gen Z. Businesses and boards expect effective leaders to attract and retain top talent and provide a high return on investment to succeed. And as businesses increase efforts to diversify their workforce they are looking for leaders who bring a specific set of traits, including empathy, inclusivity, innovation, vision and resourcefulness. Traits of which female leaders often excel.

The Bend Chamber recently held a forum to explore the opportunities and obstacles of becoming a female leader in an evolving landscape in the workplace. The focus was on how women find their way to success by sharing insights from the formative years in education, through their professional careers.

The panel included Lisa Keown, career and technical education coordinator for Bend Senior High School, Jess Orozco, Senior VP of sales at Platform.sh, and Laura Breit, CEO and managing principal of Colbreit Engineering. It was moderated by Luanne Abrams, founder of CEOx, an online ecosystem connecting qualified female, CEO-ready candidates to leadership roles.

The panel started with the formative years. Setting a career path for females often means identifying them early and providing mentorship and opportunities as they start to solidify their interests and explore a variety of studies.

Defining moments come from early opportunities for girls and young women when a teacher, professor or other mentor encourages them to participate and acknowledges their achievements. At Bend High School, Keown makes an effort to invite female students to participate in welding, construction and other trades classes and found that direct encouragement resulted in dramatically higher attendance and success of young women in class.

After women transition from education to their careers, businesses need to ensure larger numbers of women are included in advancement training. Orozco, now a VP, shared that her early business leadership experience meant learning from scratch, and on her own. She says mentors and others who support women as they grow into leadership roles are essential to encouraging them to succeed and pursue even more leadership opportunities.

Some women bypass the corporate ladder to build their own business, but even then, they can experience obstacles. Breit, an engineer and business owner spent much of her early years building relationships and navigating a male-dominated construction industry. She credits her ability to build relationships and the help of a male mentor as key to her success.

And as Abrams works with potential CEO’s and companies seeking leaders, she sees higher probability of placement of women who have experienced support from others in the workplace, and who have been recognized for their contributions. They often need encouragement from others to apply for leadership jobs. She believes women need to make a habit of applying for advanced positions even if they may not meet every qualification listed in a posting — something their male counterparts do more regularly.

Businesses also need to think differently about leadership recruitment. “In order to get more women into business leadership, we need to change how we assess candidates and do it on talent more than qualifications,” said Abrams. “Most women are not given the opportunities in the first place to develop key experience, so companies need to hire based on talent instead.”

Given the data, it’s a chance worth taking.

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