What is keeping women from moving into high-level leadership roles? Despite the prevalence of corporate programs to advance them, recent research from Working Mother Research Institute says women often aren’t aware of—or don’t know how to pursue—career opportunities, don’t understand the importance of networking and building work-based relationships, and are afraid to take job risks when they don’t have all the required skills.
SHRM Online spoke with Rosina Racioppi, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer at Women Unlimited Inc. in New York City, about what organizations and women can do to close the gender leadership gap.
Racioppi works with Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies such as Raytheon, Prudential and Adobe to develop their high-potential female employees. She has more than 25 years of experience in human resource management and is a former member of the Forbes New York Business Council. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, a master’s degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. Racioppi wrote her dissertation, “Women’s Mentoring Wisdom,” on how women use and fail to use mentoring at the midcareer level.
She is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, the American Society of Training and Development, and the New Jersey Human Resources Planning Group.
Her comments have been edited for brevity and clarity and to include information that was provided following the interview.
SHRM Online: Do you see any commonalities among companies in the kinds of obstacles women face in moving their careers forward, as well as in how organizations can break down those obstacles?
Racioppi: When I did my research on how women leverage mentoring relationships for leadership development and advancement, every single woman I spoke with told me—proudly—how independent they were. But the power in organizations comes from collaborating with others. It’s how we gain perspective, how we use our network to keep us informed of the business and ourselves.
Working in isolation, we’re not getting feedback; we’re not developing our business contacts and knowledge, and it limits our understanding of how we need to grow our capabilities.
SHRM Online: Are those development obstacles any different from what men may experience?
Racioppi: There’s bias in the way we talk about women’s capabilities, both by leaders and how women think of themselves. It impacts how they’re viewed in potential roles.
Men tend to look at the opportunities in organizations and say, “One day I want to run this business.” They may not have experience running the business, [but] the organization sees them as having that potential. They’re not looked at solely based on what they’ve done. They’re viewed on their potential. Women feel they may not be capable [of performing a role] if they don’t have all the requirements.
Just last month a woman told me she put her name in for a promotion and then looked at the requirements. She had two-thirds of them but withdrew her name because she didn’t meet all the requirements. A senior leader asked why she withdrew her name and told her they wanted her in the job. She got the promotion.
And leaders use a different yardstick for women than they do for men. During meetings, men will often interrupt others or talk over people to express an opinion that they are passionate about. This is often perceived as a strength and a positive leadership attribute.
Conversely, when a woman displays similar behavior of interrupting, speaking in a strong or forceful manner hoping to convey her passion on the matter, it often has the opposite effect. Women are seen as too aggressive and not understanding how to play well with others. Gail Evans, in her book Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman (Crown Business, 2001), discusses how important it is for women to learn how to express strong points of view that land effectively on people and not create unintended barriers.
SHRM Online: Fairygodboss, a career community for women, surveyed 400 men in June to understand how to best engage them as workplace allies for women. It found that most—87.5 percent—want to help women advance in the workplace, but the majority of those who do—56 percent—don’t know how. What would you advise them?
Racioppi: It’s a shared responsibility.
Men need to provide clear feedback to the women on their team, telling them where they are excelling and what might be some potential developmental challenges. When the feedback is uncomfortable, we tend to overly generalize it.
We need to give them coaching skills to ask the right questions of the people on their team so they can learn together. Help them understand what the development is about and their role in supporting the learning, so development becomes sustainable in the organization.
If a woman receives vague feedback, she should ask for clarification and an example to understand how to incorporate it into her development.
Women and men experience organizations very differently and have different expectations. Women still come into an organization working on getting that “A.” No one tells them it’s a different game than when they were in college, and [that approach] leads back to perfectionism.
SHRM Online: How should women position themselves within their organization to reach their full potential?
Racioppi: It’s a whole host of things: key relationships that help them better understand that their unique skill set is an asset to the business. Having conversations with leaders as to what those roles would be. Asking, “What should I be doing today?” Sometimes [women are] too linear in our career development.
For companies, it’s identifying and correcting biases in the system. Is there a slate of potential candidates that includes women, and are there women of color? It’s not looking at all women as one monolithic group, and embracing diversity.
SHRM Online: You’ve said that programs alone are not enough to achieve gender parity. Please elaborate.
Racioppi: There isn’t one solution that’s going to solve this dilemma for organizations, that you can implement across the board. What I’ve seen as most effective is when organizations have a blended approach that starts with training that tells the individual, “This is what it means to be a leader at our company.” It’s not the same for each and every woman or stage of her career.