“Growing” Women Leaders

dead-houseplant-SS_162811973I have what you might call a black thumb.  While I love the idea of a house full of green, shiny, oxygen-giving foliage, my houseplants usually end as sad, wilting, brownish wisps.

This year I tried succulents, after learning that they require very little care. They also require lots of sunlight, a detail that I overlooked.  In a dark corner on my brand new shelving unit, alas, they turned to brownish wisps, as usual.  I had to admit that if I wanted them to grow, I’d have to give them the right conditions.

I was reminded of my gardening failures recently, while doing some research into the conditions that allow women to grow into leadership positions.

The statistics on the imbalance of women in senior management teams are as troubling as ever.  While many industries now see gender parity in the labour pool (S&P 500 companies report 45% women), the percentage shrinks with each rung up the corporate ladder, with women making up only 4.6% of CEO’s.

Why is this percentage so low, when study after study shows that companies with gender balance at the top are more profitable?  And even more importantly, what can women in HR and management do about it?

What’s keeping women from “thriving”? It’s worth a closer look at the workplace conditions that might be getting in the way.

“Environmental bias”

Given the historical dominance of men in the workplace, many organizations still have structures and work behaviours that have evolved to match men’s styles and preferences.  These biases – often referred to as “second-generation bias” – play out in policies and informal expectations that favour men and disadvantage women.

For example, we accept that many, if not most, organizations are hierarchical and competitive in nature.  This basic structure – with roots in the military, the state and the church – is based on men’s tendencies towards competition and status.  Women tend to be more collaborative and prioritize engagement and “participative decision-making” (behaviours acknowledged by a McKinsey study as crucial to successful leadership).  This mismatch in culture to style often leads to discomfort for women. Their absence from top jobs – often attributed to personal or child care issues – is often more likely because the culture doesn’t “feel right”.


In hiring processes, it’s well documented that women are more likely to apply when they meet all or most of the job criteria.  Men will more often throw their hat in the ring regardless of whether they are fully qualified.  Knowing this, businesses can tailor the way they craft job descriptions, to narrow in on what skills are actually required, and which are merely desirable.

Performance Reviews

Fortune magazine reported on a study that revealed that women were more likely to receive critical feedback in performance reviews – almost 20% more than men do.  Not only that, this feedback was more likely to include “personality-based” feedback.  Words like “judgmental”, “watch your tone”, “step back” appeared in 2 out of 83 critical reviews men got but in 71 of 94 critical reviews given to women!  Wow.
The Double bind

Girls and women are constantly negotiating the double bind; they must be careful not to be too assertive and pushy, but also not too tentative or self-deprecating. I referenced this phenomenon in an article in the Toronto Star on gender and racial discrimination in politics: direct, decisive women are waaaaay more likely to be criticized for personality traits than men are, whether in the media, in performance reviews or in hiring practices.  Research shows that while men can be seen as both likeable AND as competent, for women and other non-dominant groups, well….  Choose one.

Consider language: “he’s assertive”- “she is pushy”, “he is decisive” – “ she is bossy”.  It’s almost impossible to fight bias – conscious or not – when traits that are celebrated in men are derided in women.   Changing the way we talk about successful women would be a huge step forward.

Here are a few ideas of what women – at all levels of an organization – can do to help other women to rise and thrive as leaders.


  • Inform yourself and others.  Come together with other women, talk about experiences in the workplace, and which aspects of your corporate culture are most challenging.
  • Examine job descriptions and performance review criteria for bias, and question wordings that focus on personality.  Ensure that criteria are objective, measurable and necessary.
  • Reach back.  Be a mentor or a sponsor.  Help younger women find support and advocacy. Many men are keen to be powerful allies, mentors and sponsors and their involvement is key to closing the gap.
  • Create safe spaces for growth and learning: Confidence and training can help create a level playing field. Provide spaces where women can come together, discuss their feedback, compare notes and emotionally support one another without fearing being misunderstood or judged. This support may be a coaching relationship, women’s leadership training, peer support or an employee resource group.

Fostering the “right” culture, along with ensuring transparent pay structures, flexible working policies and the right training opportunities, are some of the conditions that will help women to thrive as leaders.

As for me, my latest plant is an orange cactus, which is thriving.  This time, I put it in the window.

More on helping women leaders to thrive in the coming weeks…

Also, I’ll be sharing more information about an upcoming opportunity to empower women through our signature program, Power Up: Leadership Presence for Women, being presented by Nightwood Theatre, Canada’s preeminent Women’s Theatre company, on April 29th.

Learn more

What do you think?  What are the conditions for growth where you work? Leave a comment!  (I love it when you do)


Take care,



1 Comment

  1. Sarah, this is a wonderful post and so on the nose. A must read for women in, and aspiring to, leadership.


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