Too Few Women Have Conversations About Leadership Skills

Posted By Terri Williams on May 16, 2017 at 7:50 am
Too Few Women Have Conversations About Leadership Skills

Gender parity in the workplace is dependent on a variety of factors. For example, some college majors lead to bigger gender pay gaps than others. Another component in both career advancement to leadership positions and wage equality is access to – and quality conversations with – the right people in an organization.

According to a report released by Right Management,

  • Only 1 in 4 women have had a career conversation about how their skills can be developed.
  • Only 1 in 5 women have ongoing career conversations with their manager.

Career conversations should include the following:

  • A skills assessment.
  • A conversation on how to develop skills.
  • A conversation on performance.
  • A conversation on how the individual’s skills and contributions are recognized.
  • A conversation about the individual’s career goals.
  • A conversation about opportunities for career growth.

Mentorship: The importance of one-on-one career conversations

Individual career conversations with mentors can help women discover and nurture their dreams. W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology in the department of leadership, ethics, and law at the United States Naval Academy, a faculty associate at Johns Hopkins University, and the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.

Johnson tells GoodCall®, “Famous developmental psychologist, Daniel Levinson, discovered that young adulthood is the time when most of us form some sort of career ‘dream,’ which is our imagined ideal life/career.” However, Johnson says that most college students aren’t really sure what their dream looks like and probably haven’t even articulated it. He doesn’t believe that simply reading about various careers or attending a seminar is adequate.

“Part of the job of a skilled mentor is to spend time getting to know a mentee and his or her dream,” Johnson explains. “It’s a bit like archaeology, through caring conversation, a seasoned mentor can help you unearth your interests and fledgling ideas about what you’d most love to do.”

After helping the mentee understand and articulate these passions and interests, Johnson explains, “A great mentor uses conversations to reinforce and empower your dream.”

However, women also need sponsors. While mentors can provide advice and guidance, the report notes that sponsors actually help women develop their skills and get promoted.

Sponsors: Who, what, where, and why?

Kathryn Bartol, the Robert H. Smith Professor of Leadership and Innovation, chair of the management & organization department, and co-director of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change at the University of Maryland’s Robert H Smith School of Business, defines the role of a sponsor. She tells GoodCall, “Sponsors are advocates for placing an individual – often called a protégé – into important development positions; they provide advice about skills to develop, give well-targeted feedback, and share critical connections.”

Bartol says sponsors are so essential in the leadership process because they can fast-track a protégé’s career. “But it’s a two-way street: protégés generally are expected to deliver high performance and often aid the initiatives of the sponsor.”

The importance of having a sponsor cannot be overemphasized. “Research shows that women who have strong mentors and sponsors make more money, receive more promotions, and generally find more satisfaction in their careers,” Johnson explains. “Good sponsors open doors, connect you with their professional networks, champion you for new opportunities, and give you ‘insider’ advice about how to successfully navigate an organization or a profession.”

In fact, Johnson believes that few factors are as important as at least one strong sponsor – female or male – in closing the gender pay and advancement gap.  “And developing an entire constellation of sponsors and mentors is even better,” Johnson adds.

The sponsor problem

According to the survey, 84% of women have not be able to identify a sponsor within their organization. The reasons they can’t also highlight many workplace gender disparities.

Heather Foust-Cummings, Ph.D., vice president and center leader at the Catalyst Research Center for Equity in Business Leadership, tells GoodCall®, “Catalyst research shows that women often lack access to informal networks and, critically, to influential sponsors who can get their work noticed, advocate for them, and put them forth for highly-visible assignments and promotions.”

Foust-Cummings says these highly-placed sponsors are critical to a woman’s advancement and career progress. “Men’s mentors and sponsors are in more senior positions than women’s are, and thus have more clout to put the employee’s name forward for opportunities, and this difference helps explain why women are denied access to ‘hot jobs’ — the roles most likely to lead to advancement — and are thus subsequently less likely to receive vital visibility and promotions than men.”

In historically male-dominated professions, such as science, engineering, technology, and the military, Johnson believes that it is much more difficult for young women to “go out and find a sponsor.” For one reason, there aren’t as many women in leadership positions who can serve as sponsors, so options are severely limited and male leaders might not be as receptive.

“Traditionally masculine professions and organizations might be less friendly to women because biases about women’s potential for success persist – for example, ‘girls can’t do math.’” Johnson says. And, he adds that some men are uncomfortable working with women and may be reluctant to initiate sponsorships.

The solution to the leadership conversation

If women are less likely to advance without sponsors, it’s incumbent upon employers to help rectify this situation. “To address the gaps that arise between the career trajectories of men and women, companies need to emphasize that sponsorship is an expected behavior of all leaders, and the folks whom male leaders are championing should not all look just like them—in fact, sponsoring someone who looks different from you and has different life experiences than you will enable you and your team to benefit from their unique perspectives,’ says Foust-Cummings.

She adds that organizations can even explain how a sponsor relationship is mutually advantageous. “Sponsors benefit from such relationships even more, because helping a talented person use those talents to improve your company will reflect well on you, too.”

However, if companies won’t take the lead in this area, Bartol says women must take the initiative. “One way to find a sponsor is to ask for small amounts of career advice from people who seem to be in key positions in an organization or one’s field.”

In addition to gaining knowledge, Bartol explains that this also helps women determine who would be interested in providing additional advice and could eventually end up being a sponsor. “It also allows women to send signals about interest in gaining higher level positions,” Bartol says. “Essentially, one needs to network to locate sponsors, so it helps for women to be proactive.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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