Women comprised 46.9% of the US labor force in 2017, but only held 4.6% of CEO positions. While numerous internal and external factors contribute to women being underrepresented in leadership, many strategies exist to help bridge the gender gap at work.
In organizations, small actions and a little education can incite big changes. For example, when companies communicate to employees that a “vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypic preconceptions”, stereotyping and penalties towards individuals who are prone to being stereotyped against are sharply reduced. In other words, if employees think that coworkers are actively fighting their biases, the workforce responds by being more inclusive and accepting.
Having honest, open and heartfelt conversations is essential, because sterile, policy language only serves to distance individuals from the issues. Dialogue that uses practical language that's accessible to laypersons, rather than policy language and legal jargon, enables transformation. Thus, active education, intentional messaging and direct conversations are crucial for creating change.
Investing in social good isn’t just a good thing to do; it’s good business too. Consider this: advancing women into leadership roles pays off financially for companies. According to a 2008 McKinsey study, the statistical correlation between a high numbers of female senior executives and strong financial performance substantiates how promoting women to leadership is not just a social endeavor.
While there is financial incentive for promoting women, a double bind in the workforce reduces the ease with which women can transition into leadership positions. Catalyst Inc. research on the subject is aptly named, “The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t.” The double bind negatively affects women in three primary ways: 1) others’ extreme perceptions view them as too soft or too firm if they act consistently with female or male gender stereotypes, respectively; 2) a higher competence threshold must repeatedly be met to prove themselves, yet then women still typically earn less than men; and, 3) unlike men, women leaders are viewed as competent or likeable, but rarely both. Although the double bind constricts women and their ability to champion influence without risk of social and professional consequence at their organization, tempered change techniques can gently catalyze evolutionary change for lasting shifts in corporate cultures.
Through personal and public actions, such as disruptive self-expression, variable-term opportunism (using short-term wins to build momentum that creates longer-term opportunities), and strategic alliance building, women and other groups underrepresented in leadership can influence change incrementally for less pushback. For example, Indra Nooyi engaged in disruptive self-expression when she wore a traditional Indian sari to interview at PepsiCo for a chief strategist position. Although her action was small and personal, it made a difference in the company culture by broadening what her colleagues thought the appearance of someone with executive presence and leadership could look like. Today, Nooyi is chairman and CEO of PepsiCo.
For workplaces to fully thrive, the belief that women are unable to lead or uninterested in leading must be actively combated with intentional strategies by individuals and companies. For women to effectively stay and rise up in the workforce, it is imperative that there is economic, social and community support. Patagonia is a shining example of a company getting it right, as evidenced by their 2016 video, “We Can Be Both: Mothers at Work.” Over 30 years ago, Patagonia opened its first on-site child care center, resulting in higher retention of female talent and, thus, greater numbers of women in leadership roles. On having her children at work with her every day, one woman said, “It really is not just making a living; it really is making a life.”
To create a professional environment that works for working women and provides social and economic value, commit to education and diversity initiatives that will influence change.
 Williams, J., Phillips, K., Hall, E. (2014). Double Jeopardy: Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science. Page 50.
 Catalyst, Inc. (2007). The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t. New York, NY.