Homaira Kabir is a women’s wellbeing and leadership coach and trainer who works with individuals and in organizations to help high-achieving women win at work, be fulfilled in life and lead with authentic confidence. You can take her free and research backed confidence quiz to understand your own confidence levels.
Organizations around the world understand the economic and business case for investing in gender equality. Ample research indicates that companies with greater diversity at senior levels are more innovative, have enhanced problem-solving capabilities and greater long-term focus. They also have lowered risk and higher returns on equity. One report indicates that Fortune 500 companies that rank in the top quartile for women representation on their boards outperform the bottom quartile by more than 53 percent on return on equity.
Companies with more women in senior leadership also have lower gender pay disparities throughout their companies which leads to greater employee engagement and loyalty but also to better client relationships. Investing in female leadership development benefits individuals as well as organizations. And this past decade has seen an abundance of professional development programs aimed at doing so.
And yet, most of these programs have had little to show for the time, effort and money invested in them. Women are still largely underrepresented in senior roles, and most companies are falling short of their diversity targets at the top. The World Economic Forum’s 2017 analysis of the economic gender gap shows that it’s getting wider – it will now take women a century to reach equality in political empowerment, economic participation, health and education.
This dismal picture leads to feedback loops of discouragement and disillusionment. Many talented young women are losing ambition, a belief in themselves and the desire to work in industries of power and promise. Technology companies in particular are facing the double whammy of low recruitment in addition to low retention. Women in computer science have dropped from 37 percent in the 1980s to less than 18 percent today. And just 5 percent of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women.
Women who do rise to senior levels across organizations are also struggling. They are feeling voiceless being the only woman in a sea of men. And studies show that silencing is like a virus that affects them on many levels, leading to health issues, a loss of agency, and existential angst. Many senior level women opt of their organizations and sometimes of the workforce, perpetuating the subconscious biases of women and power.
Recent research specifically targeting women’s leadership has found that our current approach is not meeting women where they are. My own extensive research on women’s confidence in the workplace has confirmed that most of these programs do not acknowledge, much less address, women’s unique needs and challenges. To help women rise up the ladder to the top, leadership programs need to address not just the rungs of skills and competencies, but also the very ground the ladder stands on.
This is the ground of authentic expression. And for most women it’s unstable because of a life journey marked by a disconnect with who they are and what they are capable of. Very early on in life, little girls learn to please others to feel safe and happy. They’re then taught to be the “good girl”, and begin to reject parts of themselves others don’t approve of. And they grow up to be women who are disconnected from their strengths, whose dreams and desires for themselves reflect what others want, and whose subconscious fears of rejection burden them with an inner critic that leaves little space for failures or criticism.
This is the swamp of Fragile Confidence. Fragile confidence looks like confidence and high achievement on the outside, and often helps talented women advance to managerial positions. But their competence is underlined by low self-worth that makes them short-change their potential by doubting themselves and playing small, or pushing themselves to extreme lengths to excel, at the expense of their health, relationships and wellbeing. They end up stuck, frustrated, drained, or they opt out of their organizations just when they are ready for more senior positions.
I believe that a shift needs to happen in our approach to women’s leadership. Identity work needs to be a critical component of women’s leadership development, that includes not only the explicit work of identifying and appreciating their strengths and uncovering their leadership vision, but also the implicit work of understanding the fears and emotions that derail their efforts to take risks, to speak up, to ask for what they want. And what they deserve.
Unless organizations do so, hard-working, conscientious and driven women will stay stuck in knowing what they want and are capable of, and yet unable to take action towards it. And organizations will not be able to retain their greatest asset, much less help them rise to their highest potential.
And that’s a disservice to women, to our workplaces and to the world that needs women now more than ever before.