Managers, especially those of young female professionals, are on the front line in the struggle to achieve gender parity. These managers have the power to set women on the right path and reverse the cycle of discontent that occurs when women's careers stall after a few years. When managers give regular feedback about expectations and performance, provide coaching about broad organizational context and facilitate exposure to decision-makers, they set the stage for women to succeed.
Ruth, a mid-level employee, provides an example. She put her name in for a job opening that would advance her career within the organization. When Ruth looked at the position description a second time, however, she withdrew her name. Ruth wasn't comfortable applying for a job for which she wasn't 100% qualified.
When Ruth learned that a male colleague had put his name forward for the same position, she thought, "I'm surprised he's putting his name forward when he doesn't have all the qualifications either."
Then Ruth had another surprise. The hiring manager asked why she had withdrawn her name. Ruth explained that she didn't meet all the qualifications.
"You don't understand," answered the manager. "I want you in that position. I think you're perfect."
Ruth, like so many of her female peers, created barriers to her own advancement. Why? One reason is that women have a different understanding of "perfect for the job" and "perfect in the job" than their male counterparts.
Women tend to enter the workforce with the assumption that outstanding work will be noticed and get them promotions. So, they overdeliver. For the first couple of years, it works. Women's hard work is initially noticed and rewarded – but then things change. Promotions begin to go disproportionally to men, who don't seem to be working as hard. Women begin to feel discontent and resentful. Often, they leave the organization and join another one, where the same thing happens.
This dynamic occurs because women and men have different understandings of how rewards work in organizations. At root, they differ in how they understand performance. While men focus on what they need to do to meet objectives, women focus on what they can do. In short, they overperform and exhaust themselves.
When women overperform on noncritical projects, not only do they feel exhausted, they lose the capacity to focus on other factors essential to career advancement. Men perform at the needed level and use the rest of their capacity to notice what opportunities are in front of them. They observe how the executives and influencers keep score, build relationships and position themselves for advancement. Men strategize based on what they learn.
If we want to achieve gender parity, we must ensure that women have a realistic understanding of how performance and rewards work. We must start with entry-level women before they create their own barriers to advancement.
In my work with Fortune 1000 companies, I've come to see managers as a critical link to making gender advancement a reality. When managers provide women with guidance, skill development, and exposure to influencers, women advance – and everyone wins. Here are three ways in which managers can close the gap.
1. Provide guidance and feedback about performance.
Being intentional about providing regular reviews of expectations and performance creates opportunities to guide young women in real-time. On a project by project basis, managers can point out the difference between overperformance and what needs to be done to move critical projects forward.
Managers can also help early-career women think about their roles in the context of the larger organization. With clarity on how their capabilities lead to an impact on the business, women find it much easier to set appropriate priorities, rather than try to do everything. Clarity about priorities breeds confidence, an essential ingredient for advancement.
For example, if Ruth had understood how her capabilities matched the most critical elements of the open position, she would have stepped forward, knowing that the lower priority aspects of the job could be managed. She would have had the confidence needed to advocate for her own advancement – as her male colleague did.
2. Provide exposure to the broader goals of the business.
Managers need to encourage curiosity in their young employees, especially regarding the financial metrics that drive their businesses. Women need to understand those metrics and how their own work contributes to them.
Every organization has rules and a scorecard; young women need to know that it doesn't hurt their integrity to know and strategize within those rules. As they present their ideas, initiatives, and requests for advancement, women will be most successful if they speak in terms of metrics and priorities.
It's a manager's job to share broad business information and create opportunities for exposure, including participation in cross-department teams and/or stretch assignments. In discussing career paths, managers have the opportunity to give feedback about their employees' strengths, recommend steps to expand skills, and point to opportunities to gain experience in profit and loss functions. Such experience not only provides the employee knowledge about what drives the business, but it also affords essential credibility in the minds of decision-makers.
Helping women build skills in negotiation may be especially helpful. According to a Harvard Business Review article, "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers," one of the subtle biases toward women is placing them in staff roles rather than ones with profit and loss responsibility.
Negotiation skills are needed to gain access to the critical jobs. According to a 2016 Catalyst report, employees – both women and men – who successfully negotiated their roles were 42% more likely to have profit and loss responsibility. They were also 30% more likely to lead projects with "very great" visibility to the C-suite than employees who were not successful at negotiating their roles.
3. Create opportunities to connect with decision-makers, influencers and mentors.
Top-tier managers create connections between their reports and key people. They also coach them to make the most of the encounters. For example, a manager may invite a young professional to participate in a meeting with senior leaders. The opportunity to observe senior leaders is valuable, and coaching can increase that value. The manager can prepare the employee by helping her identify important things to share in the meeting in order to move the business objective forward and show her expertise.
It's especially important for managers of young female employees to help with assignments and introductions. Generally speaking, women are hesitant to ask for mentors and sponsors, and formal mentoring programs don't always work. Astute managers talk with their female employees about the importance of relationship building. They also recognize that women claim to learn best about effective business strategies from successful women. The managers smooth the way to make those connections happen, at multiple levels.
Many CEOs and executives have joined the struggle for gender parity. Their commitment to organization-wide initiatives is admirable, and those initiatives need to continue. At the same time, every manager has a unique opportunity and responsibility to add to the pipeline of savvy, skilled and confident women. When managers give regular feedback about expectations and performance, provide intentional coaching about broad organizational context and facilitate exposure to decision-makers, they set the stage for gender parity. While a manager's role may not be splashy like a formal and expensive development program, it's critical. Let's embrace it and appreciate that role.