In a most persuasive HBR blog piece: Women Don’t Need to Lead Better Than Men. They Need to Lead Differently, Debora Spar, President of Barnard College, makes a compelling case for greater gender diversity in senior executive ranks. She points out that only 15% to 20% of women are able to reach this level despite strong efforts at diversity that are very successful early in career. Did you know that there are no women on Apple’s nine-person senior executive team? In looking at underlying causes, Debora hints at a solution which I develop below. She points to testosterone driving men, but not women, to risk-tolerance levels required by senior executives. This risk averse characteristic among women erodes their desire for senior executive positions — roles where personal financial rewards are highly leveraged for results that can’t be realized without significant risk taking.
As I read Debora’s blog piece, one thought came to me: if women were exposed to risks early in their careers, they would be more likely to accept risk-taking positions later in their careers. In light of this, companies should consider putting high potential employees in positions where their pay is highly dependent on success. And do it early. This will be great training for all these employees, men and women. And don’t worry that the women may turn down these positions. There’s lots of evidence that women are plenty competitive early in career.
I’m betting that once these women get comfortable in these roles, they will embrace them, even at senior levels. They will be better prepared emotionally for top roles and therefore far less likely to avoid them during the challenging work/life balance years. The men who are given this experience early on will see their women counterparts learning to take appropriate risks and will more readily accept them in these roles.
And don’t stop there. Promote the women early, even to relatively senior roles. Make it very difficult for them to walk away from a bird in hand vs. a long shot when the tradeoff is time at home. I’m excited just writing this. Imagine how excited we’ll all get when we stop wasting some of our best talent. And the timing couldn’t be better. There is every reason to believe that Millennial women will be even less tolerant than their predecessors of a workplace they feel does not embrace them. What today is a 15% to 20% senior female diversity rate could drop much lower if something isn’t done quickly!