How Women Can Flourish in the Workplace

When I asked last week if women were dissatisfied enough to force change in the corporate world, my post triggered off a global debate. Many participants, thankfully, focused on what we can do to increase the number of women leaders and managers in business rather than diagnosing the causes, which are all too well known.

I'd like to return to the conversation by reiterating my fundamental belief that the corporate world has largely failed women, an argument that I've made earlier here and in other public forums.

I've always been convinced that some of the world's best managers are mothers. Many women raise children and manage households, often from a young age, almost singlehandedly. They demonstrate extraordinary talent but when the same women enter or re-enter the workplace, they seem to lose those capabilities. That's because women managers usually have to fit into organizational molds that force them to opt out of the workforce, resulting in what experts describe as a leaking leadership pipeline.

What actions can companies take to change that? Before we mentally tick off boxes about common practices such as setting up crèches, flexible work hours, and so on, we should ask: Is that what women need to flourish in the workplace? Or can companies do things that are more important to enable women to succeed?

I believe there are. Companies must create organizations that are aligned, culturally and emotionally, with woman employees' priorities. There isn't one clear solution, though. That kind of alignment can be accomplished through mentoring as Avis B and Louise Gardner suggest; changes in organizational models, as Dorothy Dalton recommends; or by entrepreneurship, as David Kaiser advocates. Companies also need to change their expectations that employees should be available anywhere, anytime; find ways around women's reticence to advocate for themselves; and change the unwritten rules of workplace engagement favoring men.

Although attempts have been made to change the status quo, progress has been slow and frustrating. However, as Marion Chapsal stated powerfully: Enough is enough. Rather than waiting for the world to change, women must increase their aspirations in areas where there is scope to do so.

The question I find myself asking is: Can women aspire for more and, at the same time, take advantage of existing opportunities? I believe they can do both, not one or the other.

There's ample scope for women to display greater ambition at three watershed career moments. The first is when women have to decide on a higher education course. Statistics show that while more women complete graduate and post-graduate degrees than do men, they lag behind in signing up for professional courses such as management, law, and medicine. A record number of women entered Harvard and Wharton in 2011 (nearly 45% of the class at Wharton and 39% at Harvard) but, at a number of other business schools such as Notre Dame's Mendoza, Carnegie Mellon's Tepper, North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler, and Indiana's Kelley, women enrolment hovers in the 20% range. The figure is much lower in India.

That's happening even as girls are outperforming boys in school. "Girls outperform boys in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, and graduate school," says Michael Thompson, a school psychologist who, with Dan Kindlon, writes about the academic problems of boys in his 2000 book, Raising Cain. After decades of special attention, girls' grades are soaring while those of boys are stagnating.

What troubles me is why professional courses still attract so few women. There could be many reasons, especially in India, but enrollment figures of 10% and 20% defy logic.

Besides, the trend triggers a chain of related events. When companies try to hire more women from B schools, they have few choices. We definitely need to fix this problem through grass root-level mentoring and coaching in our education system.

The second watershed comes at the entry level in organizations. According to Sara Laschever, the co-author, with Linda Babcock, of Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, 20% of women say they never negotiate for better pay. She interviewed several women under the age of 30, nearly all of whom said they felt guilty about asking for more money than companies offered them. If women kick off their careers by earning less than do their male counterparts, it's almost impossible for them to catch up.

You may ask why women need to negotiate equal pay in the first place, an issue CEOs need to tackle. I don't believe women should have to negotiate, but I also feel they shouldn't accept lower compensation when it is unfair. Can we not mentor women to perceive their true value, especially in male-dominated organizations, and to walk away from unfair offers?

Finally, and this is the third turning point, research has shown that women's professional reticence comes to the fore when it comes to promotions. Why do women aspire for less then they deserve?

It may be a choice for some women who look for different things, which I see in some men too. However, even women who can take on additional responsibilities, and secretly aspire to get to the top, don't push hard enough. How can we coach women executives make the case for themselves harder? How can they communicate their aspirations so they create strong tailwinds? Just how do we get more women to say: "I am ready for more?"

As I travel to Dalian next week to talk about these issues at the World Economic Forum's Gender Diversity Group, I wonder if you have ideas that I can present there. What solutions do you think will make a difference — solutions that women can implement if the world around them refuses to change and those that will force the world to change?

Keep your ideas coming; I intend to continue discussing this important issue in this blog in future.

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