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Women Leaders: Why Women continue to be underrepresented in top leadership positions

With all of the efforts over the past 4 decades on diversity and women in leadership, there continues to be a huge gap.  Women represent over 50% of the populations yet in the US continue to represent less than 17% of the C-Level (Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, etc…) and Board of Director Seats.  Why is this?  I recently attended a women’s conference in San Francisco that was put on by the PBWC (Professional Business Women of California).  At the conference one of the keynote speakers was Sheryl Sandberg the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.  She had some interesting insight to share about why women continue to be underrepresented in these top leadership spots.  She made several observations in her talk.  I’d like to focus on one of her key points which was, “Women systematically underestimate their own abilities,” and Sandberg cited data that illustrates this point.  She said, “For example, men tend to cite themselves as the primary reason for success, while women tend to cite external factors. And 57% of men negotiate their first salary out of college, while only 7% of women do the same.”  These are statistics that can’t be ignored – how will we reach par with our male counterparts if we don’t even try?

I thought about this in the context of my own career.  I reached a very high executive level in the IT industry – Vice President at HP one of the top tech companies in the world.  But as I thought about what Sandberg said, I reflected on my own journey.   I thought about how I traversed to the executive ranks and have to say that I can relate to Sandberg’s comments.  When I was young in my IT career I was filled with doubt.  Not necessarily about my abilities or about being a woman.  It was about how I would be perceived if I have to leave work to pick up my kids when I was a single parent or need to take time off if one of my kids was sick, which happened often.   I also reflected on how I didn’t negotiate my salary until a very specific time in my career.  After I was promoted to my first executive level position I found that even though I was the top performer, most of my peers (all men) were paid significantly higher salaries than I was being paid.  I then not only negotiated, but demanded that I was paid what I was worth.  And while this was good, it does reflect what Sandberg discusses, why wasn’t I negotiating all along my career with each promotion?  Were my male counterparts negotiating along the way?  I’m thinking they probably were and it just wasn’t apparent to me.

Sandberg has good advice that needs to be heeded by both women and men.  Women need to step up and negotiate in every way possible to ensure they are getting the most out of their work, salaries and opportunities.  Men need to listen and realize that as leaders it would be wise to be advocates of preparing women for leadership positions.  How can you coach and support the women in your organizations to help close the gap?   Diversity at all levels is a strategic advantage that should be exploited.

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