The progress of women in the workplace is at a standstill. How can we break through the glass ceiling?

Illustration: HR Law Canada
By Louise Champoux-Paillé, Concordia University and Anne-Marie Croteau, Concordia University

Women are promoted less than men because they are deemed to have less leadership potential than men.

These are the findings of a study published in 2022 by professors Alan Benson of the University of Minnesota, Danielle Li of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and Kelly Shue of Yale University and the NBER. Their conclusion is based on the consultation of 30,000 performance evaluation forms of employees working in a large American retail chain.

According to Prof. Shue, performance assessment is generally very factual and based on very concrete evaluation criteria. Assessing leadership potential, on the other hand, is more subjective and can give free rein to the biases that shape the perception of leadership as conceived by those who carry out these assessments.

“What we commonly talk about in terms of management and potential are characteristics such as assertiveness, execution skills, charisma, leadership and ambition. These are, I believe, real traits. They are also very subjective and stereotypical, associated with male leaders. What we have seen in the data is a fairly strong bias against women in assessments of potential.”

According to these researchers, women’s evaluations of their promotion potential are getting progressively lower than men’s as they rise through the ranks of the organization, leading to an increasingly solid glass ceiling.

This is what we’ve seen when we’ve looked at the presence of women in senior management positions for decades, notably as I have, as dean and executive-in-residence at the John Molson School of Business, as well as co-director of the Barry F. Lorenzetti Centre for Women Entrepreneurship and Leadership. Things are not changing fast. According to a recent World Economic Forum report on gender inequality in the world, at this rate, it would take another 132 years (compared to 136 in 2021) to close the gender gap.

A better work-life balance

As the consulting firm McKinsey illustrates, only 30 per cent of senior management positions and only five per cent of CEO positions in Canada are held by women, according to a census by the Canadian Securities Administrators.

In addition to perception issues, there are a number of other factors that explain the scarcity of female talent in senior management. These include the demands of balancing work and family, women’s choices for a better life balance, disillusionment about their chances of accessing these strategic positions, and so on.

However, we will be focusing on the following two questions, which were addressed at our last master’s class for the Women Initiative Foundation, which took place in May at the John Molson School of Business:

1) Is there a trend towards a new conception of leadership that is more multidimensional and parity-based and that fosters greater equity?

2) Can women be more proactive in their quest to make a greater impact at the highest levels of decision-making?

For a new leadership type

In an article published on La Conversation in April 2020, which I co-authored with Anne-Marie Croteau, dean of the John Molson School of Business, we reflected on the challenges of the 21st century that will characterize the evolution of leadership.

More specifically, we referred to climate change, health, the environment and the depletion of the Earth’s resources, the aging population, the shortage of talent and the development of new technologies. All these major factors are reshaping the game and calling for a new type of leadership, different from the command-and-control approach which marked the last century.

This new type of leadership draws heavily on resilience, courage, flexibility, listening, empathy, collaboration, benevolence and recognition of the collective contribution. The involvement of everyone’s intelligence becomes the key to success. As parity in management functions is gradually taking place, these other leadership characteristics are emerging.

In order to overcome the obstacles of the 21st century and achieve success, organizations need to diversify their pool of talent as much as possible, particularly in terms of gender. It is now high time to review the definition of leadership to make it more multidimensional, referring to all the qualities it must include and promote.

Career-boosting mandates

Given this move towards a new approach to leadership among today’s managers, we can ask ourselves about the opportunities that women can seize to raise their profile within organizations and develop their expertise.

One of the strategies that deserves attention is the acceptance of mandates that we will call career boosters, and which can be defined as follows: a short-term role that enables the acquisition of new strategic knowledge while creating significant added value for the organization.

According to a study carried out among senior business executives, 71 per cent of respondents identified these types of mandates as having been their career boosters. Another study by the consultancy Korn Ferry even described these types of roles as the most valuable career acceleration experience, ahead of mentoring, training and even networking with more experienced leaders.

Raising awareness in organizations

Unfortunately, this type of special assignment is offered more frequently to men than to women, with administrative assignments (note-taking, event organization, making coffee for meetings) being the most frequently offered to women as well as those that do not lead to promotion.

Organizations have a duty to be mindful of this discrepancy by documenting the assignment of such mandates by gender, highlighting the inequities that such an assignment process can engender, linking the granting of such mandates to individual performance and, above all, consciously offering more such mandates to women in order to correct these unconscious prejudices.

It’s possible to break through the glass ceiling, but succeeding in this major challenge requires a fresh look at leadership. Opportunities for career acceleration must be offered to people of all genders. Our organizations also need to become more aware of the hidden inequities embedded in promotion processes.

Louise Champoux-Paillé, Cadre en exercice, John Molson School of Business, Concordia University and Anne-Marie Croteau, Dean, John Molson School of Business, Concordia University

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