Women in Leadership – A Question of Ambition

This article is part of a series based on the research described in the doctoral dissertation by Dr. Melinda G. Hubbard where she studied why women continue to face challenges reaching the top level of organizational leadership.

I had a colleague say to me, during a heated debate on the question of equality in the workplace, “If women wanted to be at the top, they would be there.” You might guess, and you would be correct, that this colleague was a white male who was over the age of 55. At first, you might be like me, and simply dismiss him out of turn as a product of his generation, as ridiculous as he sounded and not worth the time and effort to even consider.

This particular colleague, however, was a highly educated man, and a person I respected greatly, so I decided to give him a chance to explain himself. What he said was intriguing and worth discussing.

What he then went on to describe was the seemingly endless number of executive women, who, having reached a certain level, seemed to disappear from the corporate landscape. Some quick online research of our mutual acquaintances showed that some of them had moved to a new company (clearly only disappearing from our landscape). Some of them had left to open their own businesses. Some we knew had left to take care of children or parents. Some had left to do something entirely different.

There is some research on this – the act of ‘opting-out.’ In fact, over the last several years there have been several sensational articles in the press about this phenomenon and the popularity of it among women leaders. The original article was written by Lisa Belkin in 2003 for the New York Times Magazine. In this article, Belkin interviews women who opted out to do something completely different, largely raising their children, giving up on successful careers and expensive educations. Subsequent articles build from here, though, showing that there is much, much more to this opting-out.

Was it a by-product of the glass ceiling? Was it fatigue from fighting a battle they were unlikely to win? Or fatigue from playing by rules that made no sense to them? Or was it, as my colleague suggested, a question of ambition?

Do women really want to lead?

I’ll save you the suspense. The answer is clearly and overwhelmingly, YES. Women want to be successful. Women want to be in charge. Women want to get ahead. Women want to lead. In study after study, researchers have shown that in professions across the board, from judges to scientists to sales professionals to academics that women have just as much, if not more, ambition than men. They want to lead, they want to be successful, they want to get ahead.

In my research study completed for my doctoral dissertation, I urged the women I interviewed to discuss their ambitions for the future. In only one case did I have a woman suggest that she was not interested in continuing to move up the corporate ladder. And the reasons that one woman gave were incredibly interesting in and of themselves. She felt that she would not be adequately supported if she were to move up, and so desired to stay in the role she had.

The rest of the women I spoke with, and the data I collected quantitatively, all reaffirm what the previous researchers have shown: Women are not lacking in ambition. Women want to lead.

This article is the first in a series. In future articles I will explore some of the reasons both my research and the research of others offer for the lack of women in the highest level positions. We will cover personal traits of women leaders, the current corporate environment and social forces that may keep women back or cause women to ‘opt-out.’ Stay tuned!

As always, stay positive!

Women’s groups – why we need them


I’ve had a couple conversations in recent days regarding the existence of women’s groups. They are everywhere these days – I even belong to several of them. I am on the steering committee for WINGs, Women Investing in the Next Generation, a circle of women giving to the United Way at recognized levels. I am on the board of directors of the Zonta Club of Cincinnati, a branch of Zonta International, a global women’s philanthropy organization. I am a member of the women’s affinity group here at my work. Clearly, I have bought into the idea.

Let me first discuss two objections to these groups. I’ve been presented with many of them, and I want to give them some space and some thought. All of these were presented to me by rational, kind-hearted individuals, so I believe they deserve some exploration.

First, the claim is that these groups are exclusive, and not inclusive. If what we really want is an inclusive society or workplace, why would we support an exclusive organization? On the absolute top surface of it, I understand why the people putting forth this objection have this issue. We are working for an inclusive society/workplace, and these are exclusive organizations. There are important reasons why we have to do this, and we’ll get to these reasons later.

Second, I’ve heard more than once, as I head out to one of my meetings, “You headed to one of your man-hater clubs?” Most of the time this is said in jest, but as we all know, there is always a kernel of truth in every joke. For some reason, there is an expectation that if we have an all-women’s group the focus must on our hatred of men. How surprised would they be to hear that the subject never, ever comes up.

So to answer these objections, why do we need these groups?

One of the first thoughts that comes to mind is a story that I am sure has been replayed in just about every home with children in America. It happened in my childhood home – and I was the culprit. Frustrated with my Mom for making me get dressed and go out on a picnic that did not cater to my 9-year-old desire to stay inside and read (yes, I was one of those kinds of kids), just to celebrate Father’s Day, I screamed, “Why do we have to celebrate Father’s Day? We don’t ever celebrate Kid’s day!” My Mom looked at me and said, quite sternly, “Every single day is Kids day! We have to pick one special day just to remember how much we love our Dads.”

In the simplest terms, this is exactly why we need women’s groups. In our society today, and in many of our workplaces, every committee is a men’s committee, every group is a men’s group. Just as “kids days” don’t exclude adults, so too do most “men’s” groups not specifically exclude women. However, because the default is men, we must do something special, something separate to recognize women.

It goes beyond recognition, however. Women need a place to feel safe, to explore the unique experience of being female in the corporate world. There are many academic studies out there that show that there is a dearth of women in leadership roles. This is not because women do not wish to hold leadership positions, but rather it is due to a complex web of organizational factors that hold women back.

Let me give a rather simple example. A young woman is at a company function. A man, senior to her in the company, says “You look fantastic!” as he stares directly into her cleavage. Now, she has a choice. Does she report this or not? I discussed this precise predicament in a previous post. But now lets say that she is part of a women’s employee resource group. She now has access to resources. She has an outlet to explore her options, and get feedback on possible actions. She understands that she isn’t alone, that it wasn’t her fault, and that she has other women backing her up, and helping her through.

I truly believe that most men and women understand the need for women’s groups, but I also know there are some men out there, and possibly women, who need some additional help understanding why these organizations continue to exist and thrive. I, for one, am grateful for the opportunities these organizations have given me to invest in my community, my workplace, and myself. I will continue to participate and support these organizations and the incredible women that are involved in them.

Do you have any experiences you would share about being involved in a women’s group? How have they helped you?

As always, keep it positive and smile! Happy Monday!

Labels: One way to think about them


Last week I participated in the Truth Rebellion (#thetruthrebellion), an Instagram campaign led by @ashley.beaudin, the leader of The Imperfect Boss (www.theimperfectboss.com). The idea was to examine labels we, as women, carry around with us, given to us by others, that do not accurately represent our truths. By visibly striking that word and replacing it with a word that does define us, we step into our power and take back our control.

This ‘assigning’ of labels can happen in the workplace as often as it happens in our private lives. We often let our workplaces, our bosses, our coworkers place labels and expectations on us that are not our own. I spoke of this in a previous post. I want to be careful to differentiate between expectations about job performance, and expectations around who we are as individuals. These are two different things. My boss is absolutely allowed to expect certain things of me for the price of my paycheck. What he/she cannot do is define who I am or who I want to be.

Some of my favorite word pairs I saw in the several hundred posts include unworthy which became worthy, limited became limitless, failure became risk-taker, naïve became ready to bloom, and loud became voice of truth. Stubborn became strong, busy became productive,  too quiet became good listener, bossy became leader, and reckless became fearless. These are such empowering ways to reframe words that were given to us in an attempt to name our limits, and turn them into words we give ourselves, naming our potential.

My word was emotional. Here at work, well meaning individuals, along with those who perhaps did not have my best interest at heart, have told me I am too expressive, too dramatic, that I wear everything on my sleeve. I have had many conversations with bosses over the years, bosses I have loved and respected, along with those who, to put it mildly, I did not love and respect, where they patiently explain to me that I need to ‘calm down’ and ‘hold back.’

In the next breath, these same individuals will praise my drive and ability to push for what is important. While they ‘do not want to stifle that’ (like they could!), they’d like to see me – what? Perfect my poker face? I suppose that is what it is. Perhaps they are right. Professional presence is important, and personal branding is a big deal. But here is the problem – up until now, I have let them define me. I have let them pick the word. I have given away the power to use what I am to my advantage.

So here is the truth – I am PASSIONATE. I will fight for what I believe is right, and I am not afraid to speak up. When I am delighted, I love to celebrate, and to share that delight with everyone around me. When I am inspired, I want to bring others along with me. When I am shocked or disappointed, I believe others should know that, and you will see that in me. I am professional in the way I express all of this, and I am appropriate and controlled in my responses. But there is never any mistake on which side of an issue I fall.

Today I reject the idea that I am emotional, and embrace the idea that I am passionate.

What words do you reject? What do you claim in their place? Please share!

As always, keep it positive and smile!

Happy Monday!

Leaders – Beware of inherent bias


Inherent bias is an insidious beast. Inherent bias is the opinions and judgement we each hold deep within ourselves that are a result of our upbringing, our environment, and our experiences. Many times these biases are not explicit. Many times we may not even realize we have them. This is what makes them especially dangerous.

Think about the last time you sat in a public place. Maybe a restaurant, an airport, a ballgame. Think about the people you saw there and what you thought about them. Chances are you only had a fraction of a second to observe them, but in that time you made all kinds of assumptions about that person. At the restaurant, was it a couple on a first date? An interview? A family celebration? At the airport, did you notice how tired a businessman was, or how excited a family was, or how differently people are dressed at the gates for a flight to Seattle versus L.A. versus Milwaukee?

This is not a bad thing – we are programmed to be alert to danger and to act quickly when confronted with it. The problem is when these biases are invoked in inappropriate situations, such as in the hiring decision of a new associate, or the determination of who will be promoted.

There are many studies out there that look at this inherent bias and have proven that it exists. Check out Project Implicit to see some of what might be hiding in your subconscious. Be prepared for some startling results! A study by Corrine Moss-Racusin shows that hiring managers make significant judgement based solely on the name a top of the resume.  “John” has a much higher degree of hireability than “Jennifer”. Another study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan shows that the same is true when comparing “white” names to “black” names. You can guess who scores more interviews.

So what do we do about this? First and foremost, we must acknowledge that this exists, and work to understand how our own inherent biases are affecting our judgement. We need to examine our decisions to be sure we have accounted for these biases. Then, we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable.

The next time you are in any type of position to make a decision involving the choice of one person over another, I challenge you to stop and consider how you are making this decision. Be sure you have not discounted (or over-emphasized) someone for traits unrelated to the job at hand. This is one way we can all work toward a more equitable workplace for everyone.

Good luck, happy Wednesday, and keep it positive and smile!

Diversity #1

Diversity is a critical component of leadership.  Study after study has shown that groups who are comprised of diverse individuals perform better, generate better results for their teams/companies, and feel better about their work. In addition, a team who takes advantage of the full range of talent available, not just the talent that looks/thinks/acts like “me”, will have a distinct competitive advantage over others.  Plus diversity makes for a much more interesting work and life environment.

The statistics are startling. According to a 2016 report  by Catalyst.org women make up 46.8% of the US workforce, hold 51.5% of management positions, but hold only 4.4% of Fortune 500 CEO positions, and make up only 19.9% of corporate board seats. I don’t know about you, but to me that seems incredible! What is going on?

I have become so interested in this question that I have chosen to study this for my doctoral dissertation. I want to at least get one step closer to an answer and perhaps even find some solutions for fixing the situation.

As you might imagine, I have asked many people for their opinions and insights into the matter, and the answers are quite fascinating. I asked a good friend of mine (male, white, 50+) what he thought the explanation was for the absence of women at the top of the organizational ladder. He absolutely insists that the fault lies in the ambition of women – that women just do not want the job at the top. He does not see this as a negative, but simply a reality of life. He is not alone in this belief – I have heard it many times,  often from people of the same demographic group as my friend.

I have looked into the academic research on this, and in a later post I will include some of the articles I have found. I cannot, even after extensive research, find a study that shows this to be the case. In one study from political science it was shown that women were recruited for political office much less frequently than men. This is not the same as ambition. Another study has shown that simply changing the name on a resume from female to male immediately alters the odds that a person will get an interview. Again, nothing to do with ambition.

I firmly believe that ambition has nothing to do with the problem. We need to look elsewhere, and I will do so in later posts.

Keep it positive and smile 🙂