How to launch more women to the top

05 Mar 2019

How to launch more women to the top

What can be done to radically improve the female career cycle? Focus on the early career phase.

Although significant efforts have been made to nurture, retain and accelerate female leaders, women are still falling behind.

The challenge of boosting the number of women in senior leadership ranks has tended to focus either on perceived individual skills gaps or on systemic sticking points like the ‘leaky pipeline’. That’s a metaphor for the continuous loss of women from some professions as they climb the career ladder.

This focus is myopic. The female career cycle is different from the one experienced by men. Therefore tackling this challenge necessitates a transformative, nuanced and multifaceted approach.

Winding pathways

“Men’s career trajectory tends to be more linear and women’s tends to be winding. As she moves higher up in her career, her professional life is becoming more demanding and her personal life frequently becomes more complicated,” explain Sapna Welsh and Caroline Kersten, partners at Leverage HR and authors of Worldly Women – The New Leadership Profile: How to Expatriate with Excellence.

Even Indra Nooyi, who stepped down as CEO of Pepsi Co, famously said in 2018: “As women, we’re told we can do it all, but there are only 24 hours in a day and you have to make can’t have it all.”

Women’s early career choices exert a major influence on their future professional trajectories.

A Kellogg Insight piece co-authored by Sally Blount, Dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the only woman leading a top-10 business school, identified the post-college years as critical. That’s the time when women can craft a strong career trajectory that unlocks major opportunities and financial rewards in their 40s, 50s and beyond.

The entry-level period, which Blount considers one of three pivot points unique to women’s careers, is an important phase that organisations must address when attracting and cultivating high-potential women into early career roles.

The cost of a ‘weak launch’ is disproportionately higher for women than men, leaving less time and opportunity to make up for a slow start.

Investing early

“Businesses should be investing in early career women because these frontline professionals are the next generation of female leaders,” argues Sarah Liu, Founder of The Dream Collective, a female leadership training platform in Asia Pacific.

Investing in talent is essential in order to shift gender parity in the workplace, believes Liu. It’s a position underscored by a growing body of research, such as a Korn Ferry study in 2017 commissioned by The Rockefeller Foundation, as part of their 100×25 initiative, which aims for female CEOs to lead 100 of the Fortune 500 by 2025.

According to the study, promising women in the launch phase of their careers must be cultivated from the outset. This is when they need help to expand and deepen their skills and knowledge on multiple fronts like people management, core business functions and processes, and strategy and future growth.

Inaction is not an option. Organisations cannot afford to lose talented women in their first decade.

As an alumnus of GE’s high-potential development programme, Michelle Wu – Chief Information Officer & Vice President at GE Power Services for the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Asia Pacific and China – is a testament to the benefits of such a programme.

Wu says: “I went through GE’s Leadership Programme, and even while in that I noticed that when women hit middle management, between year five and seven, we tend to lose them. That’s the time when people ask themselves if this is the career path they want to stay with. What kept me going was my mentor. He was ex-GE and served as a constant sounding board to help me work through my difficulties.”

This article is adapted from a piece by Natasha D’Souza in the latest ‘Women, Diversity and the Path to Greater Inclusion’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson global magazine, OBSERVE.

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