“Fixing” Women Hurts More Than Helps

Many people eagerly sent me the Wall Street Journal article, Coaching Urged for Women. The article heralded the McKinsey April, 2011 report claiming “inadequate career development holds back female executives.” As a result of their research, they surmised that the lack of women in top management positions is due to insufficient coaching, leadership training and rotation through various management roles.

Although it is probable that companies provide more development opportunities for men than women and the report does include a suggestion for leaders to work on the limiting mindsets that create the barriers for women, the recommendations focus primarily on “fixing the women” instead of on fixing the system that created the problem.

I love that I have a cadre of amazing female leaders that I coach. Yet it would make their lives easier if the male leaders they had to deal with were coached as well.

In January, the head of North American HR of one of the largest software companies in the world told me they were doing well with developing their women even though the top management team was still made up of men. He said, “I coach many of the women myself. I help them see how they can best work in this male-dominated company.”

I asked him, “Are you also developing programs for the men so they can best work with women in your company?” He quickly said that would not be possible with their German management team.

Pattie Sellers, Editor at Large for Fortune magazine, made a sobering statement at this year’s ICAN Women’s Leadership conference, “There will not be parity for women.” She said that parity will not happen in our lifetime. Parity will not happen with the power structures in place today. She claimed that there is a narrow band of acceptable female behaviors making it extremely hard for women to authentically lead. These limitations and stereotypes will keep the imbalance in place.

Selena Rezvani, author of The Next Generation of Women Leaders, says, “Women are often not seen as intellectually or emotionally equipped as their male counterparts. Stereotypes of women as too passive, too emotional or too ambitious to lead are simply not based in reality.” She describes how our social conditioning has entrenched the nuanced barriers that women face. You might think discrimination is fading, but Rezvani sites countless studies and examples that demonstrate this ongoing force in the workplace.

In addition to the negative judgments around female emotions and behaviors, the determination that they lack skills is also not based in reality. Rezvani cites a study done by Lawrence A. Pfaff in 2001 that included 2, 482 managers from 400 companies across 19 states that found female managers scored higher than their male counterparts on 20 different leadership skills. The measurements extended beyond “soft skills” like communication and empowerment to include skills typically attributed to men such as decisiveness, planning, and setting standards.

A study published in 2008 compared the scores on standardized math tests of 7 million boys and girls across 10 states found no difference in their math proficiency. Many of these girls are entering fields of engineering, accounting, and finance. The fact that few make it into leadership positions can’t be blamed on a lack of skills or knowledge.

On the bright side, Sellers also said that more and more women are starting businesses to create the companies they want to work for. I suggest we support these companies by buying their goods and services and suggesting others do the same. This may be the only way of decreasing the female leadership gap.

In spite of these bleak reports, I am optimistic that some of our leaders, especially the younger ones, will “get it.” There will be enlightened leaders who see that the answer is not to fix women but to change the mindsets of both men and women that keep women in an inferior light.

Dr. Rachel Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, writes, “When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life whole.” When leaders stop trying to fix the female problem and instead promote women being valued in the workplace for who they are, then we might start seeing the numbers of female leaders rise.

Women don’t give up their ambition as the McKinsey report suggests. The system gives up on them when they paint women as inadequate.

Yes, there should be equal opportunities for development for women and men. In addition, all leadership training should have a day focused on men and women dialoguing about their needs, desires and challenges so they can all move forward together.

I once heard a story about an African village that sees every problem as a result of their “system.” When a child commits a crime, the elders are gathered. They do not ask, “What is wrong with the child?” They ask, “What have we done that this act has occurred?”

Can we turn this conversation from being a “they should” declaration to a “we should” conversation? I urge coaching for BOTH men and women to maximize the full potential of all people seeking to be leaders.

Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D., is president of Covisioning, a leadership coaching and training organization working with a variety of people and organizations around the world to increase emotional intelligence and collaboration. Can she help you and your organization move forward?

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