Belonging: Why Women Are Not Advancing

Women in leadership do not stay places they do not feel that they belong

With much curiosity and energy on this topic, I am convinced now more than ever that women opt out of corporate America because they do not feel that they belong.  The exit interview data from women is interesting – most still cite work-life balance, caretaking, or finding a new opportunity as the reason they leave.  I believe that this is not the genuine reason.  Our feet are already out the door, what is the point in being candid and real?  This in lies the problem.  Women leave because they do not feel they can be real.  We leave because we do not like we belong.

A supporter and diversity expert, Jennifer Brown, says often that humans need to be “welcomed, valued, respected, and heard.”  We seek more than identity and a paycheck from our work.  In fact, in a recent podcast episode reveals that women are 50% more likely than men to desire purpose in their work.

Belonging is one of our deepest human needs.

This is a human need.  A wise man, Maslow, documented the infamous hierarchy of needs back in the 1940’s and this still plays out today.

Maslow outlined the five levels of human needs and found belonging just beyond our basic survival and safety needs – food, water, shelter, and security.  See, as a tribal species, we want to fit in.  It was the key to our survival since the primitive days.  We seek connection.  Even the most introverted want to feel like part of something bigger than themselves alone.  As a human species, it is difficult to survive alone.  Today, as it was back in the cave days, we are stronger together.

My take:  I felt equal, yet did not see equal opportunity.

I have always worked in male-dominated industries and companies.  Yet, I would argue all industries and most companies at the C-suite are male-dominated.  It was in the trenches of corporate America that I realized that I did not belong.  I remember the exact moment I felt it.  It was six months in to my dream job.  My mother had told me that her generation had paved the way for women to succeed and that we now were equal to men.  I blazed that trail right up until the moment I saw the organization chart.  There were 43 senior leaders at our company at the time.  A CEO, 6 Group Presidents, 36 Vice Presidents.  Guess how many leaders were women or people of color?

You guessed it.  One VP was a woman and three were men of color.  Yikes.  I stared at the organization chart for some time pondering what my mother had told me.  We are equal, yet everything about that organization chart felt unequal.  I realized in that moment that I had been told a lie.  I did not belong.  I was not a leader.  All of those thoughts flooded my head.

In Brene Brown’s last book, Braving the Wilderness, she absolutely kills this point.  Human belonging is essential. She outlines her research and her own journey of feeling alone and not belonging.  She shares a childhood experience trying out for a dance team and being rejected.  We all have been rejected at some point.  It is a part of the human experience.  Yet, the problem is in organizations where we feel this daily, we get exhausted and quit trying to fit in.

We have a chicken and egg problem.

This analogy really does describe the current patriarchy well.  We need the chicken to have the egg – yet with few women at the helm, how do we attract more women?  When women do not see themselves reflected in leadership, they disengage.  As humans, we are wired to gravitate towards those that look like us.  When women look up at most organizations, they do not see many women.  They think, I do not belong here.  Yet, how will we get more women there if few women are there?  It reminds me of the Time Ground Breaking Women video.  A key quote I love is, “pioneers rarely benefit from their success.  It is a series of positive of events that creates positive change.”

It’s hard to see what you have not seen.

Critical mass research shows that when we reach 33% women in leadership it is tipping point.  The challenge with this is we are light years behind this statistic for many leadership teams.  So how do we close the gap?  I honestly wish I knew.  A few things work – 1) allies, 2) women’s leadership development, 3) candid feedback for women, and 4) stretch opportunities.

McKinsey’s Women Matter report continues to cite feedback and challenging assignments to be known gaps for women.  Organizations are fearful of the tears and of women saying no.  Next time you want to offer a challenging opportunity to a woman or share feedback that may be tough, do it.  Ask if you would hesitate if it were a man.  Flip it to test it.  And, for women, here is the part that is on you.  Own your development, ask for feedback, ask for challenging assignments, and engage your allies.  No one can help you if you do not know where you are going yourself.

Gender equality is a tough conversation, but it does not have to be.

That is why we have the Five Questions to Get the Gender Equality Conversation Document.  This is not easy.  This is the tough stuff leaders have to do.  Engage with your team.  Have a dialogue.  I promise you will not regret it.

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