How to Encourage Women to Go After More Leadership Roles

Smiling business woman.

It's an election year. That means that government officials—or those who hope to be—are making headlines every day. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of women in leadership roles in this sector has risen steadily for the last two decades—and two are even vying for the Oval Office. However, Pew also notes the disparity in this trend when it comes to business: "Compared with their representation in the political realm, women have made only modest progress in gaining top leadership positions in the business world. Today, 26 women are serving as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (5.2 percent). The share serving as CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies is virtually the same (5.4 percent)."

To gain insight into how women can be encouraged to go after more leadership roles, MBA@UNC, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School's online MBA program, published a series of interviews with women who lead nonprofits. Here, we'll dig into the perspectives of two: Amy Palmer, the president and CEO of Soldiers' Angels, a nonprofit that provides aid and comfort to the men and women of the United States Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard; their families; and a growing veteran population; and Jennifer Windsor, the CEO of Women for Women International, a nonprofit that works directly with women who are isolated and displaced in post-war regions of the world.

Why do women shy away from leadership roles?

According to a 2015 McKinsey & Company study, "Women in the Workplace," women face a number of challenges in terms of pursuing leadership roles, including:

  • Too much stress and pressure. This was the top-cited concern—not just related to maintaining a work-life balance, but because respondents felt that the path to leadership roles is more difficult for women than it is for men.
  • An uneven playing field. The study found that women are "almost four times more likely than men to think they have few opportunities to advance because of their gender—and they are twice as likely to think their gender will make it harder for them to advance in the future."
  • Inequality at home. "Even in households where both partners work full time, 41 percent of women report doing more child care and 30 percent report doing more chores." It's a dynamic that can have a significant impact on work-life balance for women.
  • Different circles of influence. Study results indicated that men typically collaborate with male counterparts in their networks, and women with mostly female or mixed groups. Since men hold the majority of senior leadership positions, women may have less access to those who can support them for promotion.

How can women become better represented in the C-suite?

The leadership perspectives that both Palmer and Windsor offer help to address how women can be better represented in the C-Suite. The following are a few of the key takeaways that women who are seeking leadership roles in any sector can apply to their careers:

  • Nurture your entrepreneurial spirit. Even if you don't have aspirations to own your own business, most companies are looking for leaders who are able to think as if they do. Windsor said that although she sees an inherent entrepreneurial spirit in nearly all of the women she works with, getting the needed education is key: "I think education plays a transformative role in giving people—especially the women we serve—the confidence to take risks and become entrepreneurs."
  • Have a role model. Palmer noted that it's been important for her to have female leaders she can look to for inspiration: "My role models include women in business who understand the importance of giving and serving others."
  • Hone your leadership skills. This includes both leadership values and actions—which Windsor aptly summarized: "To me, leadership is first about being willing to listen and learn, about identifying the strengths and passion of your team, and continuing to inspire them to believe in themselves and the work you're doing together."
  • Believe in yourself. Palmer said it's one of the key traits she looks for in female leaders: "I am looking for women who believe in themselves and believe they are equally as capable and deserving of a job as their male counterparts. I'm also looking for people who are creative thinkers and who are innovative and passionate about our mission."
  • Sharpen your business skills. Even if you don't think you'll need them, you likely will. As Windsor noted, "I wish I had learned more business skills. Running a nonprofit organization requires knowledge of financial and management skills, and the ability to think strategically."
  • Be a mentor. The importance of being a mentor to other women is something that both Palmer and Windsor highlighted. Windsor said, "It's also incumbent on those of us who have reached senior roles to continue to provide mentorship and professional development opportunities for women who are not as far along in their careers—and to encourage our male colleagues to do the same." Palmer said that she does a lot of outreach to provide mentorship as well, "I often volunteer to speak at events and conferences focused on women in leadership … . I also focus on working with fellows and interns in our organization to ensure we are reaching as many young women as we can."

When asked how she thought more women could be encouraged to go after leadership roles, Windsor summarized the ongoing changes that need to be made in our country.

"In the United States, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure women have the same opportunities as men to take on leadership roles," she said. "This includes establishing work-life policies that actually work for families, and changing the conversation and outdated expectations that assume women are the default parents and caregivers."

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