The Real Reasons Women Aren’t Reaching the Top

By Dr. Wanda Wallace



Men who lead Fortune 500 and FTSE 1000 companies in finance, energy, manufacturing, and a range of other industries regularly tell me and my associates how difficult it is to retain and promote top female talent. Haven’t their companies been diligently practicing diversity? Haven’t family-friendly policies been put in place? Aren’t compensation disparities being addressed? Why is this so frustrating? Many companies have been at this for decades but we are not seeing much progress. Why are we not seeing significant changes?


Senior Leaders Wonder What Else to Do At the same time women executives of the organizations we work with often tell me privately that they feel isolated, unchallenged and marginalized in their jobs. The big promotion always seems just out of reach. As a result, their eyes are on the exit and they dream of being entrepreneurs or of doing something “more meaningful” in the nonprofit world.

Surprisingly, and contrary to conventional opinion, this upper-level female defection from corporate life is not about the family. Ambitious women managers and executives in their late 30s and early 40s—years when big leaps up the ladder are most likely—have already worked out child rearing and logistical issues. Many of these women have spouses who assume primary care duties. In addition, high-potential women employees without children are also likely to leave. Something subtle and profound is going on, and the failure to understand and address the real causes of women not landing senior roles can only accelerate the talent drain. As she exits, she may say that she’s leaving for work-life balance and that’s the safe answer. We find she left because she was fed up with the system and the lack of opportunity.

The Illusion of Inclusiveness and Opportunity Day to day, everyone seems to get along fine. Every corporation I’ve consulted with promotes a civilized and polite corporate culture. Granted, there are occasional events that reach back to the days of the old-boys clubs. However, most organizations actively try to eliminate overt behaviors that are inconsistent with inclusive policies.


Executives are frequently reminded of policies against sexual harassment and other sins that could result in lawsuits or worse. Men and women chat pleasantly with each other, meet, travel, socialize, and otherwise team up to advance their company’s agenda. Looking at the surface, you’d think nothing is wrong. Underneath it, though, are often strong undercurrents of not belonging for women and unease on the part of the men. They treat each other with mutual respect but that does not mean he calls her for the big deal or to get her advice.

I’ve observed too many high-potential women in corporate situations who feel frustrated and defeated simply because they don’t understand—and can’t (or won’t) navigate—the organization’s informal networks. On the other hand, men on the way up tend to easily “get it.” They are tuned to the signals, nuances, political inflections and the casual ways that decisions are made or influenced. The most successful men I’ve worked with and consulted for are experts at selling their ideas and building support for their positions (and themselves). I rarely see women in business doing the same things with the same degree of ease and ultimately success.


These women often tell me this sort of “office politics” is a waste of time and inconsistent with their way of working; it’s better to focus on the work at hand and “let your work speak for itself.” Decisions, they believe, would be better if everyone participated in an open, honest, frank discussion. Perhaps a nobler and purer attitude, but it isn’t a mindset that will propel a woman into the executive suite. The larger and more complex the business, the more important networks and relationships become, particularly as one reaches the executive ranks. As a result, a woman rarely “feels” like the right candidate for a senior position. Often, she lacks the trust and confidence of her male peers.


What Can Be Done? My associates and I have identified seven key obstacles to reaching the top and the steps women on the way up and their managers can take to overcome them. When these actions are seen as something to be cultivated and practiced in a sustained way, they become part of the formal and informal organizational culture, with positive effects at every level.

Obstacle 1: Women Not Getting the Necessary Development All too rarely do women get tough, specific, actionable feedback—both positive and negative—that will enable them to prepare for a bigger assignment. Formal reviews are important sources of feedback; so are influential mentors and advisors and informal conversations.

Male executives involved in succession planning issues often perpetuate what I call the “She’s Not Ready Yet” syndrome. Here’s a challenge for those male managers: Pull out the last three-yearly rounds of talent reviews and succession planning discussions and take a look at the names of women who are in the “ready in 3 to 5 years” column. You will most likely find that few to none of them ever move to the “ready now” column. They either stay permanently in the “great potential but not now” category or they fall off the talent list completely.

Compare that to the men on the list and see how many have moved on and up to more important roles. When I ask what happened here and why a particular woman wasn’t promoted, I’m invariably given one or both of the following answers: • She needs to take on a larger role first • She is “too aggressive,” “lacks executive presence,” or is not “strategic enough”

If she needs to assume a bigger role, did anyone give her that opportunity or talk to her about how to identify an opportunity? And if she lacks perceived “executive presence” and the rest, what’s the behavior that is missing? Most important, has anyone told this woman in a direct enough way for her to have a clue what she needs to do differently?


I hear women express frustration about this situation at every presentation I give. Women who have been given the above brush-off answers in talent reviews or appraisals have no idea what those terms mean or what actions they should take to develop a plan to work with their bosses, HR, informal mentors and other supporters to gain the skills and experience needed for the next step up. Why wouldn’t senior managers be open to this? The organization has made a significant investment in this employee, so why not try everything possible to help her reach her full potential for the benefit of all involved?

Action Steps for Managers • Provide help to fill gaps, including individualized training or coaching • Learn to give constructive feedback—make it part of the culture • Notice isolation and include her—draw her into activities • Help her understand and manage the political landscape around her • Translate feedback into specific actions she can take • Learn to promote her work and reputation in a way that is effective as well as consistent with her style • Show her how to build her internal and external network • Emphasize the art of diplomacy—when and how to push, back off, wait and give in • Shore up any weaker areas that undermine credibility or confidence (public speaking, working with boards, financial acumen, etc.) • Provide insights into the ways senior managers think, work and make decisions

For the Individual • Learn how to best ask for the needed feedback—and act on that feedback • Realize the importance of informal networks and cultivate them • Maintain high standards but don’t be a perfectionist; appreciate different approaches to work and problem solving • Recognize that what worked at one level can lead to problems at higher levels and learn to adapt to new situations.


Kim’s Story I recently discussed the progression of a few very talented women in a client organization. One in particular, Kim, had received a very high profile promotion. This was a great opportunity for her and for the organization. However, Kim was struggling in the new role. In truth, she had not settled into the last role as well as expected. She clearly needed more development to be truly effective.

Her peers knew she was struggling, yet none of them reached out to help her. From their point of view, she got an appointment several of them would have liked to have. They assumed that she should be able to figure it out for herself. Since Kim didn’t ask for help, her peers started working around her. They began to meet privately and make decisions without her input. If this pattern continues, Kim will become less and less effective in the role. This story isn’t finished yet. Kim may well “figure it out” and be extremely successful.


While this is a single case, I’ve seen many women in situations similar to Kim’s. If these women had received the help they needed at the right time they would not be marginalized and isolated.


Honest, Actionable Feedback is Rare In prior research, I have noted how difficult it is for women to get good feedback from their male managers, particularly on difficult issues. Men often say they hesitate to give women feedback, fearing a backlash.


This fear is significant whether grounded in reality or not. Many men have told me quite bluntly that they did not care if there was a performance issue or something else; they would deal with the matter in another way rather than discuss the issue directly with a female subordinate.

Furthermore, when male managers do provide feedback to women subordinates in both formal and informal situations, that feedback is too often vague, which can perpetuate problems rather than solving them. As noted earlier, various managers may tell a woman over the course of her career that she is “too aggressive” or “doesn’t have executive presence.” In every case I have seen, she has absolutely no idea what that means or what she should do differently. She thinks she is just being as aggressive as her male counterparts. And, she doesn’t know what executive presence even means. I have in fact seen many cases where the woman is being overly aggressive and she needs to stop pushing every point so hard. She could benefit greatly from more direct advice on how to be forceful without creating enemies—and how to do so in a manner consistent with her personal style so she comes across as authentic and genuine.

Obstacle 2: Wrong Roles—Stalled in Support Positions Women tend not to manage career moves strategically. Consequently, they are often trapped in the “Velvet Ghetto.” With some notable exceptions, most women in corporate careers eventually end up in a support function such as HR, communications, marketing, finance, call centers, accounting, and legal—even if they were in P&L or client-facing roles earlier in their careers. Once in, it’s tough to get out. I watch talented men rotate in and out of HR as a way to broaden their experience in preparation for a general management role. This is not what happens to women even if that was the contract going into the role.


One of the common career paths for women in financial services is to take the role of COO, reporting to one of the business heads and being on his management team. The role looks great in theory and it certainly has high visibility. But as one person who just left this role said, “It’s a death trap.” In this role, the woman is expected to take care of all the problems that arise, to meet the needs and demands of the people in the organization, to resolve conflicts, and to recruit. In other words, she is the organization’s “mother.” Over and over again, women follow this path. Two years into it they burn out want to return to a client and revenue role. But, there is often no route back. This is a permanent deputy role, not the path to the executive suite.


Action Steps For Managers •Determine if you and/or the organization have a bias against women in line roles or a preference for women in support roles •Actively promote qualified women for revenue roles, making it clear this is the path to senior responsibility •Help women who want to move out of support roles find other opportunities •Take a chance on her in the same way you would take a chance on a man •If there are gaps in her knowledge or experience, help her find ways to fill those gaps.


For the Individual •Consider other roles beyond your comfort zone in support positions •Believe that you can succeed even if you do not see senior women in similar roles •Be more strategic and think several moves ahead—anticipate what must be done to succeed at each new position •Find mentors, advocates and sponsors who will help you find a new role and who will give you solid counsel about succeeding •Understand that you do not have to know everything about a role to succeed – seek support


Obstacle 3: Women Lack Influential Mentors, Advocates or Sponsors In most large corporations, the men who advance in their careers to significant positions of power and influence are bright, ambitious and highly competent. So are the women. What typically catapults someone’s career ahead is an influential sponsor who presents an opportunity often earlier in the career. For example, recent informal reviews of senior women in financial services vividly illustrated the power of a sponsor. Every woman we reviewed had a senior male manager who provided a significant opportunity at some point her career. These sponsors were ongoing advocates and often protectors during difficult times.


Tapping someone to take on a role is largely biased in favor of people who are like the tapper. Most of those decisions are made outside of the formal talent review processes. When an opening occurs, corporations rarely go to the succession list; instead they use that opening as a chance to re-organize and re-configure the business. Usually the new structure is announced before anyone knew there was an opening. In that climate, bias will prevail. The reasoning goes: “Because someone who is like me is known, familiar, predictable, I can see how he will lead. I know how to guide him because I know what I needed in that position.” Women and organizations need to recognize the impact of this process.

I challenge all members of management teams to examine why they made it to the management team – what set them and their careers apart and put them on the path to reach a top position? Are those same things happening for women in your organization? If not, ask yourself why.


Bill’s and Sarah’s Stories: One Career Accelerates; the Other Stalls A pending re-organization would leave Bill and Sarah without positions. Both were highly-rated performers. In Bill’s case, his manager called the evening before the announcement of the re-organization to let Bill know that his position was being eliminated. Furthermore, his manager offered him a role – perhaps not the one Bill would have preferred. His manager convinced Bill that the new role would be a chance to learn a different part of the business and broaden his long-term career potential even though the new position was a lateral move and perhaps a small step backwards.

Sarah, on the other hand, lacked a managerial relationship like Bill’s. Consequently, she had no advance warning about the reorganization. Her manager offered her no options but of course gave her the typical half-hearted assurances that he would be willing to “help her find something” somewhere else if Sarah could be clear with him about what she wanted.

Sue’s Story: Over-Reliance on a Single Mentor Having just one supportive mentor or advocate is not enough. One woman I was coaching developed a great professional relationship with a senior man in her organization. On occasion, if other senior leaders were creating trouble for Sue’s team, he would step in. Eventually, he told Sue she needed to learn to manage these challenges on her own. To her credit, she became quite skilled at this, yet she still looked to her longtime mentor for support and guidance. Due to a series of changes at the top of the organization, her strongest supporter was suddenly out. Without another influential sponsor, Sue was soon moved to a lesser role.

Action Steps For Managers •Actively monitor the promotion decisions, screen for bias and challenge others to provide behavioral evidence to support their decisions •Get over the fear of failure—take a chance on championing a talented woman subordinate •Encourage senior leaders to add at least one woman to their teams in a role other than a support role •Encourage every senior leader to find, support and actively sponsor one woman •Protect talented women in times of crisis

For the Individual •Appreciate the significance of “being tapped” •Be open to opportunities and taking risks •Build relationships that allow key stakeholders to tap you – they can’t move you up if they don’t know you

Obstacle 4: Poor Diplomacy Effective politics management is a necessary process in today’s organizations – it’s practicing the art of diplomacy. It’s about building relationships and alliances, understanding shifting centers of influence, and above all, recognizing individual perspectives. Ignoring organizational politics is an almost certain route to a stalled career.

Diplomacy and politics management occur in informal settings yet the daily informal interactions between men and women are often awkward. One senior manager recently told me he was constantly on guard with his female colleagues so he didn’t do anything inappropriate. His intentions were good; he didn’t want to embarrass a female colleague or put her in an awkward spot. But as he said, “It’s hard to relax, to get to know someone and to interact as peers if you are on guard.”

Women must be aware of this reality. They can then take steps to build trust, and create opportunities for informal engagement. When this happens, such women are more likely to be recognized. For high-value, high visibility projects bosses select people they like to work with and that work well with a range of people. Exceptions occur when a woman is the only one with a critical set of skills or expertise, or when there is so much growth that there is not enough talent to go around….in effect, when there is no other choice.

Elizabeth’s Story: Failing to Build Consensus in Advance, or How the Big Job Got Away In one client organization, everyone at the very senior ranks spoke glowingly about Elizabeth, who had left the company because of a family crisis. While gone, the company still held her up as the ideal female executive. As the CEO of one business, she fit easily into the headquarters culture. Many said if she had stayed with the company, she would have had many more high-profile opportunities. However, her former boss had reservations. He reported that Elizabeth did not get the executive team’s approval for a key strategic proposition.


From her boss’s perspective, she did not spend time reaching out to people to solicit questions or concerns she could address, and to build support for the idea. As a result, the proposition did not get the attention Elizabeth had hoped for and it was turned down. Her boss stated very clearly that for Elizabeth to take a larger role, she would have to master the process of influencing key stakeholders.

Action Steps For Mangers •Offer specific feedback on how to navigate politically charged situations •Show how handling politics diplomatically can lead to wider success for the individual and for the business

For the Individual •Learn—either by coaching, mentoring or training—to handle political situations effectively •Develop a more nuanced view of relationships and political dynamics—and develop an appreciation of their importance •Recognize both the power of ideas and the power of relationships – both are required to create success •Master the art of diplomacy – it’s critical for getting things done

Obstacle 5: No One is Tracking Her Career Too often, talented women simply assume their competency and achievements will be recognized and rewarded. This is a mistake. These women need to cultivate senior level mentors who will track their careers and look out for them. Too few women see this as a matter that deserves regular attention. Without these networks it can be extremely difficult to build support, test ideas, find appropriate mentors, and perhaps most important, become aware of valuable career opportunities.

On the other hand, we have seen examples of women managing these issues successfully. In one client organization a high-potential woman two years away from a key promotion was being considered as a candidate for an assignment in Asia. Her boss and one other person mentioned this opportunity to her and asked her what she thought of the idea. While waiting for more information, she mentioned the opportunity to a more senior member of her organization who had been a mentor for her. He advised her to hold off for a while as new directions in the marketplace became clearer. Without this “inside” information, she could easily have made a poor career move. He knew a major re-organization was likely in the region that could leave her in a very tentative position.

Action Steps For Managers •Make a deliberate effort to track careers of high potential women •Look outside the formal review processes •Use informal networks to learn who is satisfied as well as who might be ready to leave the organization

For the Individual •Learn to think strategically about your career •Use mentors, advisers, and networks to make senior managers aware of what you are doing and that you would consider new opportunities •Maintain networks at all levels •Seek out projects and assignments that offer high visibility •Build sponsorship

Obstacle 6: Failure to Adapt to Style Differences in Managing Conflict Most managers—whether male or female—are not very good at dealing with conflict. In my prior research, women routinely describe difficult situations with serious conflict involving either a boss or a peer. To over simplify, women tend to adopt one of two quite different approaches to conflict. On the one hand, some women prefer to put the facts on the table and have an open, direct discussion. Frequently men find this approach too aggressive and too confrontational. On the other hand, some women prefer to avoid confrontation altogether. In this case, they give in and are labeled as too soft. Men may judge this lack of confrontation as a lack of confidence. In either style, women often find themselves in a situation where their well- intentioned attempts leave unexpected damage and unintended consequences. Worse still, these women often have no idea why this happened.

In contrast, men may spend a good bit of time preparing for a confrontation. They want to discover where others stand before a confrontation. When the confrontation occurs, it is usually in private as opposed to a public meeting. Sometimes, the way men deliver confrontational messages to each other can appear to women as if nothing was actually said. From the male perspective, women often hammer the point for too long.

Getting the balance right in conflict situations is an art form and it is particularly important as women (and men) seek to advance their careers to positions of greater power and influence. As with many leadership issues, there are few role models for women to follow. It’s even more of a challenge when their style differs from the norm.

Sally’s Story: Downplaying a Reputation for Aggressiveness Sally was a very successful member of an international team. She was a top performer and she was highly valued by her boss and her boss’s boss. However, she was seen as too aggressive with her peers. She had gotten that feedback and believed it but she didn’t know what to do. As I coached her, it became clear to both of us that when she felt she was not being heard on an important issue she became very aggressive.


The more aggressive she became, the less likely peers would listen or help work through an issue. She had to learn to trust that some issues could be resolved later in a different way and save the aggressiveness for the most urgent issues. A few changes made a huge difference in how she was perceived and in how much people were willing to work with her.

Action Steps For Managers •Learn to manage differences effectively – recognize the value in each style •Cultivate inclusiveness •Create an environment where people are encouraged to speak up and to honestly disagree without repercussion

For the Individual •Monitor differences in styles •Adapt as much as possible to a wide range of styles; not everyone thinks and reacts the way you do – nor should they •Ask for advice and feedback •Before you dive in to challenge someone, do your homework – test your perspective, evaluate the importance of airing the conflict at this moment and assess the cost to you and the team •Find allies who share your view and sense of importance •Fight only one battle at a time

Obstacle 7: A Persistent Sense of Vulnerability Finally, women in increasingly responsible corporate roles are often very anxious—aware that everything they do is closely scrutinized—often down to the smallest detail, from dress, to the way they carry themselves in business social functions. Living under a microscope, so to speak, gets old and can erode a willingness to step up, increase visibility, take additional risks, cultivate mentors, build effective networks, and seek larger roles. Managers need to appreciate this vulnerability, even on the part of a seemingly confident woman. The higher she climbs in an organization, the more likely it is that she will be the “one and only,” which brings with it a distinct set of pressures.

Action Steps For Managers •Notice the isolation potential – draw outsiders into discussions and decisions •Appreciate how much the “one and only” syndrome impacts stress, visibility, vulnerability and confidence •Be seen actively engaging high potential women—this visibility sends an important signal throughout the organization

For Individuals •Find people who are like you and with whom you can be “part of the club” – consider affinity groups, women’s networks and external networks for people in your field •Use self talk to keep your confidence strong •Don’t take it personally or isolate yourself •Reach out to trusted peers for their perspective on problems

Conclusion: A New Path for Women Who Want to Lead (And Companies that Want Them to) Women with the potential, ability and desire to lead must learn to navigate the subtle and interconnected arts of building consensus and support for their ideas (and themselves) across the organization. The few women CEOs today undoubtedly have these gifts. However, far too many women (and minorities) today are left to “figure it out on their own,” which can be very difficult. Without effective guidance and coaching, the result is frustration for the employee, a too-early exit for a talented contributor and significant recruitment and training costs to the company. On the other hand, a sophisticated program designed to help women on the way up acquire the informal and intuitive skills needed to reach the executive suite would show the company’s commitment to these women in a meaningful way.

Given the pressure most boards place on CEOs to improve the number of women in senior positions and given the enormous cost to prevent a lawsuit including settling claims rather than resorting to the courts, most CEOs would jump at the chance to resolve the issue once and for all if coaching could help. Besides, the publicity a CEO would receive from being the first to crack the challenge of how to advance women would be worth the efforts.

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