No Ifs, Ands or Buts About It
At my previous company, the senior women's group I belonged to was evaluating several internal female candidates for a more executive role. Our group goal was to fill the position internally and combat the lack of diversity on that particular team.
“Oh, she could be a good for the team, but…”
“I really think she has potential, but…”
“I love her attitude and her drive, but…”
And then it dawned on us. We were inadvertently undermining the same women that we were trying to place in more senior positions. No matter how qualified, experienced or driven a female candidate was, there was always a “but” we could find that would disqualify her. We had fallen victim to the unconscious bias that plagues many, but especially the women in almost every industry—there is almost always a reason to say ‘no,’ regardless of her qualifications.
Despite the advances women have made over the past decade or so, female representation in the C-suite is still embarrassingly low in corporate America, especially in the world of finance. Only 13 percent of executive officers at US firms are women, and only 4 percent of the CEOs are women. Among asset managers, women make up only 7 percent of money managers and only 19 percent of investment analysts among asset owners.
Often it’s not a lack of drive, talent or willpower that holds a woman back during her career–it’s a lack of advocacy. We in leadership roles need to make sure we say “yes” to deserving women. And we need to say it often.
To improve your opportunity to land the next big assignment or promotion, it helps to know what others think and say about you when you are not in the room.
But don’t men have big buts too? Of course they do, everyone does. The difference is that men often also have one or more advocates in the room who are willing to address those concerns, in that moment, and keep the discussion focused on the candidate’s strengths rather than the weaknesses. So when we talk about advocacy and sponsorship on behalf of potential female leaders, these are the subtle interventions we are really talking about. It’s easier to make grand gestures, but the behind-closed-doors talks are where we as advocates really matter.
I’d like to point out that I believe there is a difference between a mentor and an advocate. A mentor shows someone the ropes, helps him or her think about future career options and provides some perspective on how to navigate. An advocate may do some of the same things, but there is a critical difference: the advocate is also in a position to speak up on behalf of someone, usually from a position of influence. The advocate may be a manager, a senior leader with exposure to the individual or a thought leader in the organization. As someone privy to those closed-door meetings, the advocate leverages his or her own reputation and corporate power to help advance a woman’s career. In short, an advocate can counter the “buts” in the moment.
One of the most important things an advocate can do for a deserving woman is let her know what’s holding her back and what is being said about her behind the scenes.
Heather would be great, but she doesn’t have experience managing a team this big.
Claire could be a good fit, but she would have to travel more for work and she has a baby at home.
Susana is fantastic, but will she be able to handle the speed of that division?
As a leader, you the advocate are privy to information a candidate might never actually hear. Why are people saying she can’t get that raise/promotion/project? Does she not speak up enough in meetings? Does she seem to lack confidence when leading a group? These might not be the “official” reasons a woman doesn’t get the promotion she deserves, but they certainly influence the process. And if a woman doesn’t know all the reasons she didn’t get that raise/promotion/project, how is she supposed to make sure it doesn’t happen again? Just a few words of wisdom can make a world of difference.
Another thing advocates can do is invite their candidate to the table. Give her a forum to speak up. Give her the chance to meet people that could help shape her career. Give her the opportunity to tackle a new project that gets her the recognition she needs. Your role as a leader can be used to open doors that might otherwise have remained closed for a more junior woman. Advocates don’t have to babysit their candidate every step of the way, but just giving someone the opportunity to impress can make all the difference.
Most companies are committed to increasing diversity, but there is a big difference between saying they want more women in senior leadership roles and actually doing the work to get them there. Advocacy is a crucial component for making diversity goals a reality. It’s not enough to just be a mandate from the top. For those of us with a certain amount of influence, it’s important we identify the women deserving of our support and go to bat for them, propelling women into positions where they can have a bigger impact.
Topics: Gender Wage Gap
Lori Heinel is the Deputy Global Chief Investment Officer for State Street Global Advisors. She is responsible for a range of activities that impact the effective delivery of investment strategies and solutions to our global client base including representing our market outlook and investment themes, taking a lead role in investment strategy oversight, governance and innovation and managing the implementation of enterprise-wide initiatives. As an explorer of wild places, Lori enjoys listening to the sound of her boots on off the beaten paths.