It’s 2013 and by now I would have thought that most women who are in executive positions, particularly at insurance companies, would voluntarily take it upon themselves to identify and foster the development of high-potential women. From what I see, it’s still not happening as much as it should, even though it’s better than what it was.
There’s not much current and statistically significant research on this topic. So, based on my own personal research and from discussions with women in leadership roles, I’m going to share what I think are the top reasons why women don’t advocate as much for other women as I think they should.
1. Still Trying to Prove Themselves. Many women in senior leadership positions work around the clock just to prove to others that they are qualified and deserving of the role they have. Although women make up 51.5 percent of individuals in management and professional roles, only 4.2 percent of them are CEO’s at Fortune 1000 companies. Until women are confident and comfortable in the roles they are in, the likelihood of them taking the time to think about developing other women is minimal.
2. Afraid of the Competition. Michelle Duguid, PhD, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School suggests that some women leaders don’t advocate promotions for other women because of an underlying fear of other highly qualified females who might be more qualified, more competent and more accepted than themselves. Although men have had to deal with these same issues, they’ve had more role models and mentors to turn to for guidance suggesting the need for more role models for women.
3. Don’t Want to Reinforce Negative Stereotypes of Women. Professor Duguid suggests that women also might be concerned about bringing in other women with lower qualifications, who could reinforce negative stereotypes about women and impact others’ impressions of them.
4. Not Willing to Take the Risk. I don’t know of too many people who like to fail, and most of the women leaders I know consider themselves perfectionists. It’s not easy to go to bat for someone who you don’t know well. If they don’t perform up to your standards or if they have to take more time off than their male counterparts, what does it say about your ability to develop highly driven, motivated and competent leaders. It’s interesting that men are often promoted because of their potential, where women still have to prove themselves — even to other women.
5. Don’t Want to Give Preferential Treatment. Most women I know have been the victims of discrimination at some point in their careers. To give preferential treatment to one group could result in discrimination against another — something that most people who have been discriminated against do not want. Nor do they want others to perceive them that way.
6. Don’t Feel It’s Necessary. I’ve had many candid conversations with women about this, and they really don’t think it’s important or even necessary to focus specifically on the development of other women. Some argue that no one fostered their development, so why should they? Learning the ropes the hard way does build muscle and character, but it takes a lot of time. In today’s intense competitive environment where responsiveness matters, isn’t there a better way to get the same results faster?
7. Don’t Have the Time. Women are often balancing multiple and competing priorities throughout all aspects of their professional and personal lives. They often feel pressured to cut what they — or their bosses — perceive as unnecessary activities out of their lists of things to do. As much as they enjoy developing others, they often don’t see a direct connect with their immediate goals and objectives.
8. It Can Be Hard. Developing others means taking the time to understand the person, their career objectives, their skills and capabilities, as well as what the organization needs — today and in the future. It also requires the ability to give candid feedback. Too often, women are reluctant to give negative feedback based just on the perceptions of others. It’s even harder when the recipient asks for examples and you can’t provide any.
So, what do we do about all of this? First, make sure you aren’t using any of the reasons listed above as excuses to avoid developing others. Make it a priority by scheduling time on your calendar to get to know some of the up-and-coming high potentials in your organizations. Give them a chance to do something important. You’ll be amazed at what people can do when you give them something to do that matters. Last but not least, tell others what you’re doing. I think it’s contagious.
Cathy Ellwood is founder and managing principal of Ellwood Enterprises, a strategic consulting firm focusing on leadership and career development in the financial services industry.
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