“If one more person says to me, ‘I don’t understand how you can commute to the city when you have kids,’ I’m going to lose my mind,” my friend Hope said a few weeks ago. “I’m not the only person who commutes from my town.”
She is, however, one of just a few moms from her town who makes the trek every day from central NJ to New York City, where she is an executive for a major advertising firm. Hope has built an impressive career, and although she is an amazing mother who is very much involved in her children’s lives, she gets frustrated at the assumptions that because she is successful, she is somehow less of a parent.
The idea that she has to defend herself in today’s world is downright ludicrous — or, rather, it should be. But the reality is that even though women have come a long way in the business world, we still have a ways to go. For every Mary Barra (CEO of General Motors) and Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook), there are thousands of women who get passed over for promotions, mommy-tracked, or simply bow out of the race. And much of the time, it isn’t because they lack the talent or drive; it’s because the road to success for women is fraught with potholes, detours, and all other types of roadblocks.
Those roadblocks, however, may not be as obvious as one might think. Sure, you have the usual culprits of narrow-minded hiring managers who prefer to see a man in the corner office, and bosses who refuse to hire young, married women for fear they may soon lose them to maternity leave. But in many cases, the barriers are more complex — it’s young women who don’t realize they have the ability to take on more responsibility and seek high-level positions; and it’s leaders who fail to see that potential and encourage women to reach higher.
I learned this while speaking with four CIOs — Mary Alice Annecharico, Bobbie Byrne, MD, Jane Loveless and Sue Schade — as part of a panel discussion on Women In IT Leadership. When I put together a pitch and booked the speakers, I anticipated a discussion that would be enlightening, lively, and thought-provoking. These four leaders far exceeded my expectations by revealing struggles they had experienced, sharing their thoughts on what needs to change, and challenging widely accepted ideas about why more women aren’t in leadership positions.
When I cited a study which found that less than a quarter of senior executives in healthcare are women, despite the fact that females comprise 74 percent of the work force, there was no finger-pointing at male executives. Rather, the panelists talked about the role all female leaders must play in turning the tide. They talked about the need to instill confidence in young women and to challenge them to step out of their comfort zones and, as Annecharico said, “do something scary.”
They talked about how young women with great potential often need to be managed in a different way than their male counterparts. For example, as Bryne stated, with young men, “I toss them the football. I give them something, and they run with it.” With women, however, she often needs to “give them a little kick in the pants” by pulling them aside and saying, “You can do this.”
The entire time, the emphasis wasn’t on the barriers women face, but on how they can be overcome. It’s that type of proactive thinking that has no doubt helped propel all of these women to success. Of course, it wasn’t all roses — all four have had to contend with short-sighted managers or colleagues, and have worked twice as hard as their counterparts to gain recognition. They’ve all struggled at times to maintain a healthy work/life balance, and have no doubt had to defend themselves against ridiculous statements.
But instead of complaining when they weren’t getting the ball, these women — these leaders —simply drew up a new game plan, and executed on it. And in doing so, they’ve made the road a little less rocky for the rest of us.