Sunday, April 17, 2011

Coaching Women to VP Positions? Already Too Late.

The McKinsey study found that companies weren't "systematically watching these women at the middle management level and putting in programs that would help them develop and get over the next [promotion] hurdle". 

I am going to venture that coaching women in middle management is useless.  It is already too late. If you have to hold her hand to make the leap, she doesn't have what it takes.  Going the distance in female leadership starts far earlier than post-plateau middle management.  It starts in K-12 education.  It starts with highly competitive women.

Our society is confused.  We know that there is something patriarchially biased about women representing 15% of top management, yet we really aren't sure why it matters.  After all, are we really looking for female leadership; perspectives that women can offer?  Or are we looking to give women who think and perform like men an opportunity to be equally positioned to assume traditional leadership roles?   Why ask these questions?  These represent two different paths to solve the male/female diversity issue.

If we want to envision businesses that are transformed to embrace society's turn toward joint parenting: single dads, single moms, egalitarian parenting; we might find that female leadership as matriarchy provides a valuable perspective. Women with high familial orientation in positions of leadership may truly represent the gender diversity that we profess to seek. To do so, we must change the structure of traditional leadership.  Long, static, on-the-job hours with few opportunities for family-based flex time or home-based work options dissuade a high percentage of women from making promotional leaps.  Coaching will do nothing to further such a bridge.

If we want to make sure that women who fit and thrive in the current structure of traditional leadership are not excluded by their gender, we need to start at the beginning.  We have to build vision and aggressive ambition in our young girls.  We must build hunger.

We managed it in athletics. Mary Lou Retton accelerated the imaginations of young girls toward the unique physical feats possible.  Title IX provided the structural opportunties to broadly realize female athleticism. And while this administrative scheme made great strides, it likely had a back-handed effect of stunting true gender equality; only serving to further segregate males and females.  In a counterproductive way, it showed girls that they could be competitive against themselves, but rarely good enough to compete against the boys.  Athletics significantly built ideas of cooperation, but didn't do much to embed the cognitive skills to compete aggressively in the work force, especially among a pool of men and women.

We must now spend concerted efforts developing our girls' ability to compete cognitively against males and females.

I grew up playing chess against males. I had no female opponents. I still cannot find a woman to play chess against. So competing successfully against males, old and young, became as natural as gossiping with girlfriends.  I saw men as my obvious competitors for grades, artistic merit, writing, and even a few mishap physical challenges that I rarely won.  I never saw women as real opponents; so few placed themselves in the ring.

The answer to spawning more female leaders is training and developing girls who possess the aggressive hunger and self-efficacy to drive themselves toward career advancement opportunities.

My favorite moments as a K-12 administrator involve sitting across from second grade girls and teaching them how to play chess in our co-ed chess league. Our club's boys and girls see me as an adult female, enthusiastic about analytical prowess. Every session together subtly cultivates an expectation of female abilities in mathematical processing.  Likewise, our Lego Robotics team includes an unusually high number of girls.  To top it off, my favorite Write to the Principal message comes from my female students:  When I grow up, I want to be a principal.  I smile.  Because when I was young, I wanted to be a teacher.  I didn't know girls could be principals.