Every morning, I sit at my desk as Global VP of Public Relations for AIESEC International to do my daily news scan. I am instantly flooded with new articles about women not being represented enough in the top leadership positions; blog posts on how women need to take every opportunity they can at work; and reports on how to encourage female Millennials because we’re facing a leadership gap.
I then take a look around me.
In my office, there are women everywhere. Out of twenty-two full time staff on the global executive team of AIESEC, eleven of them are women – three of them are at the upper management level. Around 50 percent of our 100,000 members are women. As an organisation we are rich with “up and coming” young female leaders.
Even down at our national level where we have offices in 124 countries and territories, young women are consistently represented in the highest leadership positions. “I decided to run for President of AIESEC in India because I had something to offer and I had a vision for where I wanted the organisation to go” says Ramita Vg, Global VP Product Development for AIESEC International. “I never questioned myself because I would only be the second female President. I did it because I felt responsibility for the organisation.”
So if at a younger age our women are still striving for these upper leadership positions, where do all of the good women go?
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg ignited an international conversation about women and ambition with the publication of her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Her argument that women need to overcome internal barriers in order to advance as leaders has provoked significant debate. Skeptics claim that Sandberg’s message simplifies a complex problem and ultimately blames women for not making it to the top; supporters believe she is inspiring women to aim higher in their careers and offering practical advice to help them succeed.
From looking at the way our young women advance in AIESEC, we can pinpoint to four possible reasons why they do not make it to the upper leadership roles:
1. They are satisfied enough not to apply for these positions.
It is not always a natural next step to apply for a higher position within an organisation or to seek out more responsibility in a higher labeled role. Regardless of being a male or female, if someone is feeling happy, challenged and fulfilled in a particular position, they may not have the urge to apply to a higher position. It may be that they are already happy in their current role and in the impact they are creating. Generally, when people are happy they do what they can to keep that feeling.
2. They choose to have other priorities.
Not every woman will decide to put her career first. This comes down to what the individual defines as success; as their end goal for their lives. Some will choose their education level; others will decide that attaining a certain position will determine their success. For some the salary they make and the materials they own determine their success. Some women will decide that having a family and children is their idea of success. Each woman will have their own definition of success, and this does not always coincide with taking leadership roles within an organisation. There are certain tasks and behaviors that upper level management roles will demand that are unable to be balanced with other priorities. Maybe what needs to change is the way we view leadership roles and what is needed to fulfill them? If you were to ask someone what a typical day looks like for a C-level executive, they will most likely describe it with long hours, back to back meetings and an overall demanding lifestyle. Maybe the typical life of an executive needs to be redefined so that the opportunity can be taken by more individuals than just those who strictly prioritise work.
3. They are not in the right environment.
A woman may be skilled enough to take on a leadership role, but if the environment around her does not encourage and support her to do so, it could never happen. This is down to the system and people that make up the work environment she is in. If the system is not open, progressive and does not embrace diversity it is very hard for a woman to push her way through it. If the people around her are not encouraging, and are not showing and supporting her through the path of advancement, she may never know the opportunity is open for her. Creating an environment that supports any skilled person, no matter their gender, to take on a higher position is the responsibility of the company or organisation.
4. They hold themselves back.
Do women question their abilities to take on larger roles and responsibilities? Does the male-dominated boardroom intimidate them? We can think of many questions when we look at the substantial drop in female leaders as we move up the corporate ladder. Is there a change in their ambition as they get older or are there other factors stopping them? In her books Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead and Lean In for Graduates, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, states that women often do not aspire to more in their careers and in their leadership journeys. Maybe it is because they don’t think about it, or they don’t believe that they could actually succeed in reaching the goals they set for themselves; as women tend to not believe enough in their capabilities. After determining that they want to be a leader, women need to lean in and take every opportunity regardless of their fear of failure.
PwC is one global company that identifies with the Lean In movement and is committed to supporting an environment that will help women to achieve their full potential. The firm believes that it will take a collaborative effort of companies, leaders and from women themselves to start to close this leadership gap. According to U.S. Chairman and Senior Partner Bob Moritz, “Leaders profoundly influence the aspirations of the people who work with them, which is why ambition requires mutual accountability. Companies have a responsibility to provide opportunities and support women as they explore career possibilities and life choices. That’s why PwC is leaning in.”
On 24 April from 4:30pm GMT, PwC will be hosting its first-ever global forum on women and leadership. The event is part of “Aspire to Lead: The PwC Women’s Leadership Series,” which includes a number of programs and workshops designed for college students who are looking to build their leadership skills.
Sheryl Sandberg will share her perspective, and answer questions on the challenges women face when transitioning from campus to career in a special live webcast. The event will be broadcast live from Facebook’s campus in California. A replay will be available shortly after the live broadcast and translated versions of the webcast will be available the week of 5 May.
We encourage you to participate in this discussion by tuning into the live webcast or watching the replay at www.pwc.com/aspire. In addition, this webcast is open to anyone, so please share this unique opportunity with those in your personal, school and professional networks.
Maybe if we can get young women to start planning their career goals now, we have a better chance of helping them get there – and hopefully gain more good leadership that the world desperately needs.
The topic of women in leadership sparked a conversation throughout our office that we want to continue – stay tuned for more content coming in the next few weeks!