By Homaira Kabir

A recent report by the International Labour Organization shows that gender parity extends only as far as middle management in most professions. Many competent women are stuck, working harder and feeling drained and frustrated. Organizations committed to diversity and inclusion are seeing little in return for the time, effort and money invested in the leadership development of their female workforce. Increasing numbers of women are opting out of the workforce just when they’re ready for more senior level positions. And this trend is even worse in technical professions that are witnessing a significant decrease in both recruitment and retention.

What are we missing in our approach to women’s professional growth? What has enabled some women to rise to the top and willingly support other women in their journey? And what can we do, as mentors, coaches and organizations to empower high achieving women to show up every day with the best of what they have to offer, and to build a pipeline of diverse and inclusive leadership?

Research specific to STEM professions, where women face some of the greatest organizational and interpersonal barriers to their professional growth, shows that women who persist and rise to their full potential are those who are living in alignment with who they are. They have a personal vision that includes their profession, and is based on an ideal self that’s aligned with their core identity.

Professional development programs that lack identity work fail to meet women where they are. As a result, they have failed to close the gender gap at the top given that competence is a necessary but insufficient component in transitioning to senior leadership. A deeper understanding of women’s core needs, challenges and aspirations is essential if we are to genuinely help women make a valuable contribution to an organization’s success. Without it, we will continue to see the decline in progress in women’s advancement, waste time and effort in leadership programs that aren’t very effective for women, or worse, simply pay lip-service to diversity and inclusion.

I have spent many years researching the construct of authenticity and found that for women, an ideal self is about thriving at work and being fulfilled in life. Organizations that overlook the “life” aspect will be far less effective in helping women achieve professional success because women’s lives are lived in the integrated space between the two. Women have spent millennia are caregivers, as mothers, as homemakers. And they continue to define success in terms of a good family life and rewarding personal relationships.

This is the aspect of an ideal life that’s missing for many women, and certainly not addressed in most leadership programs. And yet, it is so needed given the reality of work in today’s world where few of us at the top are able to confine work to a 9-5 shift in order to enjoy life afterwards. Work and life are intertwined in space and time, and women not only struggle with an almost universal “mother’s guilt”, they also feel frustrated for missing out on subtle opportunities to advance their professional lives. Overtime, this depletes their mental and emotional energy, and leads to women opting out of the workforce looking for that elusive work and life balance.

Organizations can help women feel engaged at work by making women’s personal success part of organizational conversations. This includes conversations around building positive personal relationships and not just professional networks. It includes an interest in developing women’s personal vision and not just their professional one. And yes, it includes talking about emotions, about guilt and shame as much as about pride and joy. Because emotions are an integral part of women’s lives, and expecting them to leave half of themselves at the door is neither possible, nor conducive to full engagement in the workplace.

Given the compelling economic and business case of greater gender diversity at the top, and the dire need for helping women rise to senior levels, organizations need to rethink the design of their leadership programs. They need to trust the extant research that inviting dialogue and creating solutions towards their employees’ personal success leads to organizational achievement. And they need to understand that professional growth at the expense of personal satisfaction is like a weight lifter lifting a barbell with unequal weight on both ends.

Sooner or later, they will topple over. And hurt themselves and everyone around them.

About the author: My work is about helping women develop an authentic sense of self-worth. Its grounded in years of psychological research and coaching experience, and based on my pioneering and evidence-based framework called Own Your Voice.