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Take off your blinders and move past “We aren’t finding qualified female candidates"

By Julie Castro Abrams

From the way the news handles Jacinda Ardern’s resignation (which I talk about here) to reports of former Youtube CEO, Susan Wojcicki, stepping down, the news seems to be telling one story of how women are stepping back from leadership. Just look at the CNBC article title “‘It’s a huge concern’: Senior-level women are calling it quits after decades climbing the career ladder”. Really? Calling it quits? Susan led Youtube for nine years as CEO after successfully seeing to its acquisition by Google for $1.65 billion dollars. She has had a long and impactful career, and stepping back to look at what’s next isn’t calling it quits—it is making a decision that should be celebrated. Susan isn’t alone in making this decision. Many other female leaders from Marne Levine, Meta Platforms, to Nicola Sturgeon. Former First Minister of Scotland are making the same choice.

It’s being dubbed the “great breakup.” (Which I question for its sexist undertones. Why do men leaving their companies get dubbed the great resignation, but women leaving their company get called a breakup? But that’s a conversation for later.) I prefer to think of it as women stepping into their power and saying enough, but what the great breakup is meant to represent is the 10.5% of female leaders in senior management positions or above who left their companies in 2021.

To be clear, as Rachel Thomas, CEO of LeanIn.Org states, women are not leaving work. They are still pursuing opportunities. What they are doing is leaving companies that do not support them. Women are stepping up and saying, microaggressions (or macro aggressions like sexual harassment) aren’t acceptible. Women are stepping up and saying fair pay and flexibility are expectations. Women are saying, “If I’m going to give my all to a company, I need a company that supports me. I can’t run on an empty tank and be effective.” Women are asking companies to be responsive to this.

We also know that women are more likely to be appointed to a senior position during times of crisis. There is often an already increased level of stress and crisis management that women are expected to take on when they are in senior leadership positions.

Yet, despite knowing all this, I still see the narrative blaming women. Whether that is by questioning whether women can work and have children or by declaring, “See they couldn’t handle the stress.”

A new narrative emerging in the wake of these resignations is blaming women for the lack of a pipeline. For example, “The pattern [of departures] has the potential to unwind decades of progress toward gender equity and increased female leadership in the workplace.” Or, “Female leaders are still a relative rarity….” Whether implicitly or explicitly, these headlines and others like them have the unintended side effect of telling women executives that they have to stay in leadership because they are one of the only women who made it there—”you have to stay to represent all of us.” Alexis Krivkovich highlights why this happens well. “Lots of men leave their positions, but we analyze and scrutinize when women leaders do in a different way. If we had a lot more women prime ministers and CEOs and leaders at the very top, when we had one retire or exit, it wouldn’t feel like such a loss.”

Why do we have so few women in leadership roles in the first place? What can we do to increase those numbers, so that we aren’t continuing to pressure the women to stay over other priorities?

Fallacy 1 why women aren’t in leadership roles: “Because I just can’t find any qualified candidates. “

How many of us have heard this before in our careers? What I think is actually at play is similarity bias. We are attracted to people who are similar to us, so if our boardrooms look mostly white and mostly male, the people leading the searches are also going to be most comfortable with people who are like them. This mindset is holding company profits back. Studies by McKinsey have shown that when companies have women on boards they can expect above-average profitability.

We need to show up in the boardroom and have board leaders, all board leaders, start actively challenging this claim. We know most board seats are found through networking, so boards need to look at how they are actively expanding their network to include women. Start with the women on the board and in senior leadership positions. If you don’t have women in either position, it is a good time to start questioning why. Opening your boardroom doors will not only get you access to untapped qualified candidates, but also increase company performance.

Reason 2 why women aren’t in leadership roles: Trust in women leaders is declining

Trust in women leaders is going down, which can make companies reluctant to hire women into senior positions (except as stated above when they are already in crisis). We need to continue showing up with the data that shows when women lead, companies do better. We need to amplify this message. Allies, particularly men, this is where we need you to show-up! Highlight the women in your company who are demonstrating excellent leadership, raise them up, and call attention to what the research shows—diverse teams create successful companies. Not only will this help your company perform better, but if you do this less time will be spent in hiring and training. A growing body of work shows that women are willing to leave corporate environments that aren’t supportive. If you are not building these systems into your work place already, you risk losing 54% of your potential workforce to another organization.

Reason 3 why women aren’t in leadership roles: Corporate leadership isn’t supportive of female leaders

Companies need to build systems that actively support their women leaders. This doesn’t have to be a big shift or launching new programs (although it might). It can be as simple as believing the women in your company and telling them you take the issues they bring up seriously. The Harvard Business review conducted a fantastic study, that showed when leaders take sexual harassment seriously, so do employees. As leaders you have an opportunity to show your teams that you take supporting women seriously.

Now is the time for all us to look at what new systems, designed for and by women can look like. The pandemic has shown us what remote work, trust, and flexibility can do. It's time to continue that work so we can support the women running the world. Together we can show the next generation of women leaders that we support them.

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