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Why Aren't More Women Leaders in the Workplace?

When we talk about a leader in the workplace, the image that comes to most people's minds is a man--not a woman.

That's according to a recent New York Times article by Lisa Belkin, which highlights a variety of research on women and leadership, including a recent report by Catalyst, a group that studies women in the workplace. Dubbed “Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t,” the report polled 1,231 senior executives from the United States and Europe:

It found that women who act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes — defined as focusing “on work relationships” and expressing “concern for other people’s perspectives” — are considered less competent. But if they act in ways that are seen as more “male” — like “act assertively, focus on work task, display ambition” — they are seen as “too tough” and “unfeminine.” Women can’t win.

Women face major obstacles, it's true, but I disagree on the last point. Women can win more positions of leadership in the workplace, and for many reasons, they need to. They just need a little help.

Employers to the Rescue

Employers can provide such help--and sources in Belkin's story say so. All the research on women and leadership, the say, will only amount to something with buy-in from companies:

Ms. [Ilene] Lang, at Catalyst, agreed. This accumulation of data will be of value only when companies act on it, she said, noting that some are already making changes. At Goldman Sachs, she said, the policy on performance reviews now tries to eliminate bias. A red flag is expected to go up if a woman is described as “having sharp elbows or being brusque,” she said. “The statement should not just stand,” she said. “Examples should be asked for, the context should be considered, would the same actions be cause for comment if it was a man?”

Time Warner is another company taking action on women and leadership issues. Sylvia Ann Hewlett's recent book, "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps," examines Time Warner's Breakthrough Leadership--a program that joins women from throughout the company, affording them a chance to network and refine their leadership skills. Patricia Fili-Krushel, Time Warner's executive vice president for administration, engineered the program with help from Boston's Simmons School of Management and launched it in October 2003. Hewlett writes about several women who sing the program's praises, and explains:

Companywide the repercussions were immediate. "I had managers calling me and saying, 'What did you do up at that management meeting? I've had two women in my office today asking for raises!'" recalls Fili-Krushel. ...

The Breakthrough Leadership program is a powerful acceleration tool. Women who attend this program are more likely to get promoted than women who don't. The fact that Time Warner is now doing a better job of seeking out and training its own women reduces the need for expensive talent searches--the company can now look right in its own backyard. Breakthrough Leadership has also helped on the recruitment front: women at Time Warner believe that this leadership program has advanced the company to the top of the list for women looking for positions in the entertainment industry--and they tell their friends.

Time Warner's program is a two-for-one deal: It helps women with salary negotiation and leadership skills, and also saves the company money on recruiting and benefits the bottom line.

Hewlett profiles other companies, including Johnson & Johnson and General Electric, that offer employer-sponsored women's networks, "which can be extremely effective in helping women claim and sustain ambition."

No matter what the approach, it seems more companies ought to follow Time Warner and the others, and lend women a helping hand. The return on the investment will be worth it.

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