Many women who have broken through the glass ceiling feel it is their responsibility to ‘send the lift back down’ and help other women follow them into leadership positions.

As a result, a woman who has successfully negotiated around obstacles to her advancement often takes on the mantle of mentor, supporter or role model to other women. This may be informal or, increasingly, as part of a corporate mentorship programme.

Making role models visible

Some efforts to increase the representation of women at the top are focusing on making women who are currently in leadership positions more visible.

The idea is: ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’

InspiringFifty, a non-profit established by the joint founders of Improve Digital, Janneke Niessen and Joelle Frijters, aims to increase diversity in tech by promoting and drawing attention to female role models in that industry.

The initiative publishes a list of 50 inspiring women in tech in each country in which it operates. This provides a record of accessible and visible role models for women and girls who are considering entering or just want to know more about, a career in STEM.

Important influencers

One-to-one mentorship and cross-promotion also go a long way to encouraging and guiding the leaders of tomorrow.

Kate Stevenson, a Director of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce who was voted one of that country’s 100 most powerful women this year, has 25 years of experience as a senior financial executive. She notes that over the years she often benefitted from riding an elevator that was sent down by another professional woman.

Stevenson says: “I have had some great mentors and role models over the years but I have to call out one individual in particular, Jalynn Bennett. She was my first taste of the ‘old girls’ network’ in action.

“She was a new director and I was in management. She was quietly brilliant. She worked her magic with utmost discretion. She was respected by her fellow directors and loved by the staff at her board companies as well.

“I was inspired by her dedication to supporting women. She advised hundreds of us and a few men too, all while serving on some of the most prominent boards in the country, not to mention juggling duties for her family, friends, and community.”

Stevenson recalls that Bennett had boundless energy, a deep passion, and a light touch. “A little hint here, introduction there, or insight that in a flash gave perspective.” For Stevenson, this illustrates the power women have to influence one another.

“We cast longer shadows – or can give more light – than we may appreciate.”

Stevenson continues, “There is no one path that’s right for all. Every one of our careers is a labyrinth, not a ladder. Thankfully, we are at the stage where we don’t need to follow old rules. We are discovering that our real power comes from being our true selves, celebrating our differences and feminine strengths, and charting our own paths.”

Active sponsorship

According to another very successful businesswoman, Colleen Johnston, attitudes – and systems – are changing for the better. Johnson recently retired from her position as Group Head, Direct Channels, Technology, Marketing and Corporate Affairs at TD Bank Group Canada and is now taking up non-executive board positions.

She says: “For 10 years at TD Bank, I was the Chair of the Women in Leadership initiative. That was about not only looking at systemic issues, but more importantly focussing on whether we were encouraging women to really believe in themselves, be confident in their future and not to define themselves as women in business, but as a person.

“Good sponsorship is saying ‘I think very highly of Mary and I think Mary would be really good here’. “In doing that, I’m putting my reputation out there and my brand behind that person because I believe in them and that goes a long, long way.”

Equally, Johnston believes that, in recent years, more groups of women are getting together to be mutually supportive and encouraging. “Where women can play a role for other women is to engage in a positive discussion of what the future holds.”

Corporate culture

Moving beyond spontaneous mentoring relationships, how are companies instilling these values in their workplace in order to encourage the advancement of high performing women?

Clare Glackin, Head of the Industrial Executive Search Practice at Odgers Berndtson in London, believes women are well-placed to introduce systems and a culture that favour woman-to-woman mentoring and inspiration.

 “I think at the heart of it,” she says, “female leaders are showing quite how successful they are. They naturally create collaborative, solutions-focused cultures where other women can be successful.”

Glackin believes such leadership roles come naturally to women, assuming that the right corporate culture is in place.

“Successful leaders are able to create diversity and actually lead in a way that comes quite naturally to women. Often they’re not the most high-profile of leaders. Often they’re more low-key. They’re people who are tremendously successful, but don’t take the glory,” she notes.

“That type of leadership is coming to the front and that makes it easier for women because that tends to be their focus: on collaboration and inclusion.”

She adds, sending the lift back down is about “a company culture that values investing in people. This needs to come from the top and the focus needs to be on the long-term benefit to the organisation rather than the ego and personal financial gain of the leader.

“It’s not necessarily about individual women sending individual lifts back down – it’s about the culture of a company.”

This article is an excerpt from a piece by Laura James in the latest ‘Women, Diversity and the Path to Greater Inclusion’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson global magazine, OBSERVE.

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Clare Glackin

Clare Glackin heads the Industrial Practice of Odgers Berndtson in the United Kingdom. Her focus is on Board level executive and non-executive appointments in general, commercial and operational ma...

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