By Ritch Eich
In April, the Pacific Coast Business Times featured an article that focused on why women don’t attain more leadership positions. While I agree wholeheartedly with most everything in the article, as someone who has spent a lifetime working with, and for, strong women, I want to provide another perspective.
Robert Mueller, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, former FBI director and currently the Justice Department’s special counsel overseeing the investigation of Russian interference in our 2016 elections, once said, “I asked a Burmese man why women, after centuries of following their men, now walk ahead. He said there were many unexploded landmines since the war.”
Herein lies the single greatest reason women do not advance in the workplace at the same rate as their male counterparts: lack of respect.
According to recent statistics provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, women comprise approximately 50.8 percent of the population and 47 percent of the workforce. The U.S. population is essentially evenly split between genders, yet when it comes to leadership positions women lag substantially:
• 5.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women
• 19.9 percent of Fortune 500 board seats are held by women
• 25.15 percent of executive positions within Fortune 500 companies are held by women
• 19.4 percent of Congress is comprised of women
While women make up half the population of the U.S. and close to half the workforce, men are still making most of the major decisions.
This isn’t news despite studies that show having a more balanced workforce leads to better financial returns and that women-led companies often perform better. Balance in the boardroom and C-Suite often means a better bottom line.
I’ve had the privilege of working with, and for, many outstanding female leaders and they demonstrated that there is a difference between being aggressive and assertive. Aggression builds walls while assertion builds bridges. Aggressive behavior lacks respect; assertive behavior does not.
Without exception, the successful female leaders I’ve worked with have achieved success through assertion, not aggression.
Cleopatra Vaughns, a registered nurse with Blue Shield of California, reminded us of the importance of respect — and what can happen when it’s lacking. Vaughns had a real-world approach to her work in public relations that didn’t always conform to the organization’s male hierarchy.
Vaughns was strong-willed, a trait lauded in men but often frowned upon in women. Fortunately, she persevered and she and the company reaped the rewards of her contributions.
Dr. Ora Pescovitz, former senior vice president at Eli Lilly and now president of Oakland University, taught me the power of having what she dubbed a “mentor’s quilt.” A mentor to help you improve your negotiating skills won’t necessarily be the best choice for a mentor to help with risk-taking, so she recommended having several.
According to the Pew Research Center, women excel at ethics, providing fair compensation to employees and mentoring. Men excel at negotiation and risk-taking. These results aren’t really that surprising, but having a more balanced workforce will ensure that these skills are maximized. If half your workforce or customer base is women, why wouldn’t the same be true when it comes to decision making? It’s just common sense.
Here are three ways organizations can ensure women have equal opportunities with their male counterparts:
• Stop assuming that women don’t want the same opportunities as men because they will one day leave the workforce to have a family. That’s their decision to make, not yours.
• Establish formal programs where men will mentor women and women will mentor men.
• Make a commitment to champion women. Making the commitment to a more balanced board and leadership team will enhance your organization and its competitive position in the marketplace.
The recent decision to appoint only white males to the U.S. Senate’s healthcare committee sends the wrong message: that women aren’t capable of contributing to, or making decisions.
They are not respected.
To paraphrase leadership legend Warren Bennis, “It is the commitment to develop and improve others’ skills that distinguishes leaders from followers.”
• Ritch Eich was president of Eich Associated, a former leadership and management consulting firm in Thousand Oaks. He is the author of three leadership books and former chairman of the Los Robles Hospital Board of Trustees.