Changing the Narrative on Women in Leadership

rebeccaheadshot1eIt’s often said that the dearth of women at the C-level is due to a pipeline problem. But according to a recent New York Times article, “Why Women Aren’t C.E.O.s, According to Women Who Almost Were,” the pipeline isn’t the issue.

In the piece, author Susan Chira emphasizes how women who aspire to reach the senior ranks in corporations or institutions continue to experience resistance despite their clear capabilities and proven capacity to get results. After interviewing dozens of female CEOs, would-be chief execs, and other professionals, Chira finds that “many senior women in business are concluding that the barriers are more deeply rooted and persistent than they wanted to believe.” In other words, old narratives are at least partly to blame.

At SHAMBAUGH, we frequently point out these outdated thought patterns and practices related to gender that continue to persist in the boardroom and beyond. While few in Corporate America today will openly deny that there should be more women in executive roles, particularly in the new world we live in, many continue to see this as a “women’s issue” rather than one that clearly relates to an inverse relationship between business performance and gender-balanced leadership. I continue to be perplexed and frustrated that we keep band-aiding the problem rather than calling out true solutions. Because of this, we are collectively failing to effectively deal with the lack of women leaders.

What’s Holding Us Back?

What I hear cited most frequently as the biggest obstacle to women’s leadership is mentioned in Chira’s article as well: men’s gender bias that stalls women growth, decreases their credibility, and halts their advancement. This is part of the problem, but I view this repeated rationale as a “sticky floor.” We continue to see and tackle the challenge the same way that we have for decades, despite the fact that it’s clearly still not working. We could argue that many organizations invest time, money, and resources to address this issue but don’t see the ROI they should. So what’s holding us back and what do we need to do about it?

It’s time to disrupt the conversation and reframe the narrative because if we don’t start now, we’ll be in the same place 20 or 30 years from now. SHAMBAUGH frequently addresses the gender gap within organizations, and I have personally consulted and engaged with executives on how to take a fresh approach—one that will break the old narratives once and for all. The key is to rethink outdated thinking and practices through a nontraditional four-step approach that is both more creative and more inclusive:

  • Make gender balance a business imperative. Don’t treat inclusion as the latest fashion trend for organizations. Instead of viewing diversity and inclusion initiatives as “check the box,” we need to put greater focus on the entire company’s intellectual capacity, drawing on different types of thinking styles to drive business performance while ensuring that our talent mirrors our customer/ marketplace conditions. There is a solid business case for cognitive diversity and its ability to help teams collaborate while connecting disparate ideas, data, and expertise. Therefore, if we can change the narrative to be less about women and more about gender balance, we’ll have a better chance to effectively navigate new complexities, challenges, and market demands. While some CEOs already regularly state that gender balance is critical to business performance, organizations need to put some teeth behind this assertion by setting goals and publishing statistics and progress reports on gender balance. Treating gender balance as a business imperative will help reset the expectations of an organization’s managers and leaders so that they begin to see the goal of achieving gender balance as an important part of talent development, succession, and retention plans.
  • Be more careful in the language we use. We need to stop putting one gender against the other. For example, if we say that women have unique strengths that are better than men’s, think of the push back you get from men. Similarly, if you say that men have a stronger leadership style than women, consider how that makes women feel. Gender differences in leadership styles and organizational culture may be evident and recognizable, but does it explain the differences between successful and unsuccessful leaders, or successful and unsuccessful organizations? Companies need to define and enhance the specific leadership skills and culture that contributes to organizational success—while reinforcing a combination that reflects a well-rounded leadership profile—without gender-categorizing those skills.

Bottom line: to create better organizations for all, we need to be inclusive in our language and reframe the dialogue to focus less on what each gender can do better or worse. Instead we need to identify what men and women can do together as allies.


  • Reframe existing leadership models. Typically women have been expected to fit into or adapt to a traditional masculine model of leadership that has existed for decades. Just as women in the 1980s adapted to masculine leadership attributes, it’s now important for men to take a turn at incorporating leadership attributes that may or may not come naturally to them. Today’s flatter, less hierarchal organizations require a broader spectrum of leadership skills from both genders. Work toward organizational success that is not gender-categorized. Reinforce and grow a combination of leadership models that executives of either gender can use successfully. 
  • Bring men into the fold. We will never resolve the issue around gender balance by only shining the light on the gloomy picture of where women are not. Instead, we need to recognize that this is everyone’s issue and bring men into the conversation. One of the most important things we can start doing now is to promote dialogue between men and women rather than siloing these discussions. I caution organizations that by keeping men and women in separate conversations regarding gender balance or missing the opportunity for cross-networking by holding leadership events for women only, you create an isolation factor. Initiatives that address gender balance need to be gender balanced! The more we can engage men and women together in conversation regarding common business issues—and explore how their different strengths and styles can be greater than the sum of each part—the higher the chance that we will create a unified voice for leadership.

These strategies are not easy. They call for disrupting deep-seated mindsets and culture that have supported a model that worked for decades. But as suggested in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, it only takes a few people to be the voice of change—just remember to then have the leadership and courage to bring oars along.

To learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s Inclusive Leadership offering and initiatives to grow and advance gender balance visit www.shambaughleadership.com

Rebecca Shambaugh is a contributing editor for Harvard Business Review and blogger for the Huffington Post. She is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor, and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results

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