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3 Ways to Clear Barriers to Development for Women Leaders

Tags:  (2017 Feb 1st - 9:55am)

Women bring different experiences, perspectives and competencies to leadership roles. Providing targeted leadership programs for women is not just a diversity initiative, it is a business imperative. Still, women often fight an uphill battle when trying to qualify for leadership positions in male-dominated industries. While many workplaces have committed to fostering equality of opportunity, barriers to advancement remain.

Marcie Mueller, a board-certified coach and leadership development practice leader at IMPACT Group (www.ighr.com), is passionate about breaking down those barriers and equipping women to accelerate their careers. Citing a Catalyst analysis of female employment at S&P 500 companies that was updated in September 2016, she noted that “women comprise 45 percent of the total workforce, yet less than 25 percent of women are in board or C-suite roles.” This, she said, indicates that “some women aren’t finding leadership opportunities in their field, and many aren’t stepping up to ask for those roles.”

Mueller’s 20 years of experience leading talent and leadership development programs has solidified her belief that offering training is not enough. She insists that companies must commit to developing their talent. “Where you see the best results,” she explained, “is when participants are actively involved in setting their professional development goals. There are specific things organizations can do to engage women in this process and provide the right opportunities for them to develop in their careers.”

Here are three suggestions Mueller offers to any organization interested in empowering women to ascend the corporate ladder.

Initiate Ways for Women to Gain Corporate Exposure

Harvey Coleman, a leading researcher into what drives career success, believes that exposure contributes 60 percent to an individual’s professional advancement. This implies that who knows you and trusts you determines if you are selected for new opportunities and promotions.

“Corporate visibility—having a brand and building a broad network at the office—is vital for leaders [but] this is also a potential challenge for women,” said Mueller. “Women tend to focus solely on high performance and overlook the importance of a network.”

A solution is to have development opportunities focus on how women can gain visibility within their departments and across the organization as a whole. To kick-start this process, participants in the Women in Leadership program that Mueller developed at IMPACT Group complete a one-on-one interview with a senior vice president or higher-level executive.

According to Mueller, “When the women speak with the leader one-on-one, they find it is much easier to talk about their work, their strengths and their ideas rather than in situations where they are outnumbered. The executives have also gained a lot from it. Most of them are unaware of the great talent they have at their company because they simply don’t have opportunities to interact with them.”

Women also need to know that building a strong brand and cultivating an internal network is not being too forward. It helps others realize the value they bring to their company each and every day. The more exposure women gain to leaders and decision makers, the more potential they have to be selected for new opportunities in the future.

Encourage Women to Speak Up

“Women in organizations where their gender is underrepresented find themselves being the only female in meetings,” said Mueller. “Being heard and having their ideas accepted can be a challenge for them in this setting.”

To overcome problems this can cause, training programs should focus on building the confidence and assertiveness of women so they feel comfortable sharing ideas in meetings, brainstorming sessions and team discussions. Discussing communication styles also helps women aware of their approach, their tone and when they use disclaimers during conversations.

“You hear women start sentences with things like, ‘I may not be the expert on this, but …’ or ‘Keith may know more about this than me, but …,’” said Mueller. “We use disclaimers because we want to be liked, we don’t want to talk over someone or we’re not comfortable taking all the credit.”

Use Projects to Build Leadership Capabilities

“Our Women in Leadership program typically includes a capstone activity so the participants not only deliver immediate value to their company, but also put the skills they’ve learned to practice,” said Mueller.

Rising female leaders find projects are key to gaining exposure and confidence. Even small-scale projects make a difference, as they promote visibility while also building skills.

Women should actively seek out cross-functional committees, projects and stretch assignments to enhance their project management and people management skills. “I tell my clients to not wait for a promotion into leadership,” Mueller emphasized. “Be a leader and find leadership opportunities on an ongoing basis.”

With women constituting 45 percent of the workforce but only 25 percent of board members and chief executives, it is imperative for employers to find ways to diversify their leadership. Research confirms that having women in leadership roles leads to better overall performance, which proves that the investment in female talent is well worth making. When organizations help female workers gain visibility, encourage women to share ideas, and involve women in meaningful collaborative projects, they will quickly see positive impacts.


Marcia Mueller is the talent development practices leader and a senior coach with IMPACT Group, HR director and regional trainer for Hyatt Hotels, a corporate HR leader for a global travel company, and roles as an area chair and professor of HR Management for a nationally recognized university. She can be reached at mmueller@ighr.com or (800) 420-2420 Ext. 2747.