In 2019, there were more women in the C-suite than in 2015. While that’s good news, women are still a minority at the executive table. According to the 2019 Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, “About 1 in 5 C-suite executives is a woman—and only 1 in 25 C-suite executives is a woman of color.”
Many companies are now actively promoting diversity and inclusion at the corporate level. I’m glad to see this as these conversations weren’t on anyone’s radar during my decades as an executive—where I was often the lone woman at the table.
Today, I want to talk about how we can help bridge the diversity gap as individual leaders in the corporate world, whether we’re a first-time manager or a seasoned executive. We can do this with awareness, curiosity and confidence and, with practice, effortlessly incorporate these positive behaviours into our lives.
Bridging the diversity gap with awareness
Bias supports the status quo. Bias happens because we gravitate towards what we’re comfortable with. If you’re from the boy’s club, you’ll promote from within the boy’s club. I was guilty of this as the President of the Bombay Furniture Company. My entire team was female. I knew I had to stretch and
check myself by asking, “Who will do the best job?” I brought some men on board because it was the right decision for the team.
Bias also happens because of a lack of education, exposure and understanding. When it comes to human relationships, this can mean we’re unfamiliar with someone else’s background or culture and, even subconsciously, we shy away from the unknown. When I look back at my childhood, I’m grateful that I was one of the “different” kids (just ask my mom). I grew up in a small town in the southern United States and I looked like everyone else, but I was friends with the few Black kids at my school. We looked different than each other but that didn’t stop us from becoming friends. This valuable lesson shaped my life ever since.
At work, this preference for familiarity can mean promoting people we’re comfortable with instead of exploring the skills and attributes required for the role and finding the right person.
This happens at the executive level, but research suggests the impact is even greater at the managerial level because that’s the start of the talent pipeline.
“Progress at the top is constrained by a “broken rung.” The biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership is at the first step up to manager. For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level, and fewer women becoming managers. Not surprisingly, men end up holding 62 percent of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38 percent.”
When we become aware of how bias happens, we’re less likely to let it influence our decisions. Plus, by being aware that we gravitate towards what we’re comfortable with, we can hack this natural tendency by expanding our comfort zone. That’s where curiosity comes in.
Bridging the diversity gap with curiosity
As people, we have differences. Yet there are always common threads. Curiosity allows us to explore these common threads and appreciate each other’s humanity. There will always be people we don’t like but we can find the good in people if we look for it.
Today, I’m asking you to remember your ABCs: Always Be Curious.
When we get curious with each other, we build relationships. It’s effortless to get to know somebody, if we stay curious. Some people make it hard, but it shouldn’t be hard or infused with negativity. Feeding negativity isn’t helpful in any situation and it’s much harder to bridge the diversity gap when we bring negativity into the conversation and experience.
We’re all human beings, and when we treat each other respectfully, everyone keeps their dignity intact. We don’t have to agree or like each other’s opinions. Differences are simply differences, which is normal. Curiosity is about asking yourself, “How do I find the common thread here?”
To always be curious, ask open-ended questions, for example:
- Oh, that’s an interesting point of view. How did you come to that way of thinking?
- What are your thoughts on what I just shared with you?
- When you said you were concerned about the direction we’re taking, I’m curious, what did you mean by that?
Curiosity won’t make you best friends with everyone, but it will help you appreciate and understand people, including the ones you think you have nothing in common with. This is a powerful skill to use at work and in our communities.
Bridging the diversity gap with confidence
As women, it’s important to be aware about how an individuals lack of confidence supports the non- diverse workplace we’d like to change. Let me explain. Each time a woman talks herself out of applying for a promotion or new project, she’s affecting the leadership pipeline. Men typically aren’t hesitant about going after promotions—even if they’re unqualified—because many men are gifted in the confidence department.
It’s time for women to recognize their own worth and be confident about it. In my coaching practice, I see shaky confidence show up in many ways, even for successful women. Let’s look at a few examples.
Example #1: Out of sight, out of mind
If you work from home and you’ve got a boss who keeps cancelling your 1:1 check-ins, you might start to worry. You might feel invisible and expendable since this new relationship has no foundation. Do you wait for your boss to come to you? Or do you figure out a way to become visible despite the obstacles? In this scenario, I’d encourage a client to decide what she wants and position herself on that path. While it’s helpful to work hard, women can easily get trapped in the invisible executor role instead of going after what we really want.
Example #2: Over-preparing and erasing your authentic self
If you’re a brilliant and kind professional going after a promotion, you may wonder why you’re not getting the offer after you interview. You may wonder if your gender or the colour of your skin or your religious beliefs are holding you back. You may be brave enough to work with a coach to explore how you’re showing up in the interviews you take hours to prepare for. And it might turn out that who you are at work—a vibrant, likeable and brilliant professional—turns into a robot in an interview setting. Preparing for an important event builds confidence but over-preparing can make it sound like we’re reading a script instead of having a relationship-building conversation. I encourage women to get feedback in these situations so they can work on solving the right problem, instead of letting their inner critic derail their goals.
As women, we have a responsibility to build and breed confidence at work and in our homes. Every time we demonstrate confidence, we teach other women how to do the same. This is part of being a good ally to other women (including our daughters) and when women of all backgrounds take confident action, it increases diversity at all levels of leadership, from management to the board of directors.
For more of my thoughts and advice on confidence building, read my other articles, Three signs you lack confidence and what to do about it and 7 practices to boost unshakeable confidence. Or check out my fireside chat co-hosted by Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers Information Technology School of Management called Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable.
Building our awareness of others, taking an Always Be Curious approach and demonstrating confidence are three ways to build a diverse and welcoming corporate environment.
If you’d like to practice awareness, curiosity and confidence in a supportive community environment over the next 12 months, become a member of the WIL Empowered program today!
Hi, I’m Vicki Bradley, an executive coach in Toronto and the Founder and CEO of Women in Leadership Empowered.
I work with women pursuing success in executive leadership roles and the presidents and CEOs who understand that strong businesses are built with strong, diverse leadership.
WIL Empowered is a year-long program where we use all four aspects of leadership development: coaching, networking, peer to peer mentorship and skills development. Our mission is to help women develop the skills, motivation and accountability required to succeed in their business and personal lives.
Take our five-minute leadership quiz to discover where your leadership skills are now and where you’d like them to be this time next year.
Today, 44 percent of companies have three or more women in their C-suite, up from 29 percent of companies in 2015 (Exhibit 2). Adding even one woman can make a material difference given the critical role top executives play in shaping the business and culture of their company. Still, the overall representation of women in the C-suite is far from parity. About 1 in 5 C-suite executives is a woman— and only 1 in 25 C-suite executives is a woman of color.
Progress at the top is constrained by a “broken rung.” The biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership is at the first step up to manager (Exhibit 3). For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level, and fewer women becoming managers. Not surprisingly, men end up holding 62 percent of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38 percent.
Women in the Workplace 2019 (McKinsey and LeanIn.Org)
WIL Empowered and Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers Information Technology School of Management host the first of a 3-part breakfast virtual series on “Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable” in building a strong diverse future. Our fireside chat features Sudevi Gothi Partner and Legal counsel at Pallot Valo, Charles Lewis VP and CTO Telus Health, and Jennifer Laidlaw Inclusion Partners CIBC.