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Is 2013 the year we successfully develop women leaders? Ten Top Tips


Thanks to the kindness of friends, we had a special treat of a week in Italy over the New Year.  It gave me time to read books and online newspapers that I didn’t previously have time for.  What I read made me feel confident that 2013 is the year we can really build on the collective knowledge that will enable us to develop more high-achieving women as leaders.

As ever, I must put in a disclaimer.  I know many supportive men who also want to encourage and enable women to succeed.  In fact, that’s one of my top tips below.  I also know many intelligent women who like working alongside great male colleagues.  So let’s not turn this into an either-or debate.  This is about celebrating the strengths of diversity in leadership – of every kind.

I’d also add that this blog is a little longer than usual.  So take that cup of tea, relax and enjoy.

The first book I read was “Why Women Should Rule the World” is by Dee Dee Myers.  Myers was the 1st female White House Press Secretary; serving in the Clinton administration.  Her experience is both motivating and a salutary lesson for developing women leaders.  The book is a great read with some inspiring stories and I highly recommend it.

Myers makes all the arguments about why it’s important for women to have a fair share of the world’s leadership. I won’t repeat them here.  Suffice to say her writing is both polemical and funny.

The first point that really struck me in Myers’ work was in the career choices women make.  It’s vital for women to make the connections between logical skills and human outcomes.  In this way more women ‘get’ the value to society of what they’re doing.  I can clearly remember struggling with maths as an abstract activity in school.  However, whenever I applied it to ‘real things’ I could succeed.

Myers points to a University of Michigan study which found that young women viewed “pure math and physics careers as isolating and not so helpful to society.  Since they saw themselves as people-oriented, they chose biology research or health instead.”

Tip Number One: link career options to social benefits

  • Encourage women to explore traditionally ‘male’ career options by demonstrating the social value of what these skills might achieve.

Then there’s the gender difference between boys and girls in terms of verbal and numerical reasoning.  Myers reports that “girls who scored extremely high on the math portion of the SAT often also scored high on the verbal portion, a finding not necessarily true of the mathematically gifted boys.”  Girls look for careers that allow them to use all their strengths – not just one or the other.  This means they are less likely to choose maths as a specialist subject, unless they see ways to use their other talents too.

Tip Number Two: show women how they can use all their talents

  • Show how verbal skills are important in careers that major on numerical skills to encourage women to choose these education and career options

The third idea that Myers presented, not only struck me as important, but was immediately supported by a report I read, the same day, in the New York Times.  It’s all about mutual alliances with other women to be seen as influencers, not ‘token’ women’.

Myers pointed to a study of corporate boards[i] that found that it takes three women to change board room dynamics.  “A lone woman is often made to feel she represents the “woman’s point of view” and can be left out of decision-making discussions and even social gatherings.”  Two women make things better, but three is the magic number.  Suddenly, according to Myers, “women are no longer seen as outsiders, and their influence on the content and process of discussions increases substantially.”

Tip Number Three: create critical mass

  • Support women to build female alliances for mutual benefit – with at least two other women in the organisation.

This idea was supported in the New York Times (NYT) on the 2nd January, which reported on the New Hampshire all-female delegation being sent to Washington.  As well as the idea of critical mass (as in tip number four, above).  These women identified a range of other factors as vital.  For example, in order to achieve critical mass, women need to support other women.  In the New Hampshire case, this was across the political divide.  They saw the need to support and mentor others as part of normal social behaviour.

In researching her book Myers interviewed Shirley Tilghman, the President of Princeton; originally a molecular biologist.  She asked Tilghman why there are more women in that field of science.  “…one of the reasons molecular biology was … a brand-new science, there were no norms about how we behaved… it was relatively easy to get a job.”

Tip Number Four: seek new opportunities

  • Encourage women into ‘new’ areas.  Tilghman uses the example of neuroscience as an example of today’s ‘brand-new science’ which might attract women

Katharine Q. Seelye, the author of the NYT article points out that “…the State House, a typical pipeline for aspiring politicians… has 400 members, making it the largest of the states and the fourth-largest governing body in the English-speaking world (after the United States Congress, the British Parliament and the Indian Parliament). With so many seats available, women have a better chance of being elected in New Hampshire than they have in many other states.”

Tip Number Five: find or create scale of opportunity for women

  • Think about working in organisations where the pipeline is large enough for women to have a fair opportunity to progress.

It’s also important for women to get to know the other women in the organisation, again for mutual support and networking.  Professional coaching support is a proven leadership development tool which also encourages alliance-building.

Tip Number Six: support coaching, mentoring & networking

  • Enable women to support other women through formal and informal mentoring and networks.

It’s one thing to have a network and the opportunity to progress.  The next challenge is how to be ‘appointable’ to senior roles.  Interview panels so often want to see examples of existing and proven competence.   They need to see women as already working at the senior level; ready to hit the ground running.  They need to see decision-making qualities; the ability to handle significant budgets; as well as the ability to demonstrate handling responsibility, leading a team and being accountable for that team’s success.

In the New Hampshire example, volunteering was one route to gaining the experience and handling responsibility that’s needed at the next leadership level.  Volunteering often provides higher levels of challenge than paid roles.  Other options might be taking on a special project or working overseas, where you’re thrown in the deep end of handling very different challenges.

Yes, that’s no different to men.  What seems to be different are the expectations.  Women seem to need to be better qualified and more experienced, than men in equivalent roles.

Tip Number Seven: support women to get proven experience

  • Enabling women to get challenging experiences isn’t just about providing the opportunities.  Support them to apply.

Some women need to be told to apply or ‘put their name forward’.  Sometimes this is because their self-belief is a limiting factor; other times it’s because they feel the need to be acknowledged and asked.

Tip Number Eight: communicate your expertise

  • Adding your experience and learning to your CV is vital.  Expertise needs to be broadcast and recognised.

The next set of factors is to do with women’s wider home and social environment.  I referred earlier to the importance of men who support and encourage the women in their lives.  Not just husbands or spouses, but fathers and friends too.  I have the memory of my own father supporting my mother to improve her education and qualifications.  I’m also lucky to be married to someone who supports what I do.

Tip Number Nine: tap into the support of mothers and others

  • The NYT article identified mothers generally as being supportive of their daughters.  Supportive families are important too.  More specifically, having a mother who worked outside of the home provides a role model for the next generation.

This support may be challenging if women come from a particular social class or from some cultural backgrounds.  Wherever women are expected to be mothers and home-makers, the potential for divided loyalty or duty – between the job and the home – may exist.

In my own experience, senior women running major programmes in the workplace can often be expected to revert to very menial roles once they return home in the evening.  Finding ways of reaching a compromise and eliciting practical as well as attitudinal support is vital if women are to break through further into leadership positions.

This also requires employers to understand these cultural pressures.  Flexible working may be one solution, where home-working, reduced hours, enable women to bridge the work-home gaps.

Tip Number Ten: encourage flexible working

  • Flexible working is as much about attitudes as it is practice.  Both need to be in place to support women’s development

And in today’s society – where men want the joy and experience of being with their young children – this is as much for them as for the benefits to the organisation.

I’ve also referred, in the past to another great book “Wander Woman”.   Dr. Marcia Reynolds, like me, is fascinated by the brain, especially what triggers enthusiasm and innovation in the workplace. She draws on her expertise in this field as she helps high-achieving women examine and strategize their lives.  Wander Woman

The thing I love most about this book is the way that Reynolds challenges women’s own drivers, assumptions, attitudes and self-belief.  One of my clients wrote to me recently to thank me for recommending Marcia’s book.  We both shared the feeling that this book was ‘written for me’.

I genuinely believe that if we apply the practical exercises Reynolds recommends in her books, and adopt the top ten tips above, then 2013 really will be the year that women overcome the leadership obstacles.  They can find solutions to their personal and professional development needs, and move into roles that reflect and reward them as the fully rounded female leaders the world needs and deserves.

[i] Vicki W. Kramer, Alison M. Konrad, Sumru Erkut, Critical Mass and Corporate Boards: Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance, Wellesley Centers for Women, 2006.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

2 thoughts on “Is 2013 the year we successfully develop women leaders? Ten Top Tips

  1. Very positive article Helen, thanks.

    • Thanks Sarah – I realised in hindsight that I should have emphasised the distinction between Marcia’s work (the ‘inner game’) and Myers’ work which is mainly about creating positive external environments. In my view both are equally important. best wishes, Helen

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