Leadership and the journey to becoming a leader are not for the faint-hearted. From personal development to managing a team to business operations, the challenges are endless. If you’re a woman, the road is even rockier.
A study by Pew Research found that only 26 of the Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs are women; a 5.2% representation of the population. For Fortune 1000 companies, the figure is almost identical: 5.4%.
While we might think we live in a progressive era of equal opportunities and smashed glass ceilings, the figures don’t lie. The uncomfortable truth is that it’s much harder for women to reach the top. And even when they do become leaders, they continue to encounter challenges and obstacles which can diminish their confidence and undermine their success.
So what are the problems women face as leaders? How can we break down some of those barriers? We spoke to Emma Stroud, Vistage speaker and co-founder of Truth Works, about her experiences, the challenges female leaders face and why women have more power to change the status quo than they may think.
Vistage: Can you give any examples of times in your career when you’ve been discriminated against or treated differently because you’re a woman?
Emma Stroud: A couple of moments immediately come to mind. The first time was when we were working with an engineering company. I was with my male business partner and we were working with their board and every time I would ask them a question, they would aim everything back at Deon (Newbronner, the other co-founder of Truth Works). It was literally as if I wasn’t there. I think it was because those guys, at that point, didn’t have any women on their board; they didn’t have any senior women. I don’t think they really knew how to handle me; they were just in a mindset where they would rather speak to the man.
There was another time about six years ago at a networking event, when I was chatting to this guy who was a CEO. We were getting on really well and talking about work. Then Deon turned up and it was suddenly as if I didn’t exist, and because I’m quite small and Deon’s tall, this guy just spoke over my head. I may be short but I’ve got a lot of presence, so I called him up on it. I said ‘do you know I am also MD? Deon’s not my boss, we run this company together’. He didn’t know what to do with that, so the conversation ended there.
Vistage: Have you ever felt the need to behave more in a more stereotypically ‘masculine’ way or to exhibit more traditionally male qualities in a work environment so that you fit in?
ES: If we look at gender stereotypes of women being ‘girly’ and men being into ‘lads’ stuff’ like sports, I suppose I fit somewhere in the middle. I know people treat me differently to women who are seen as more obviously ‘feminine’, so I haven’t experienced this as much as I could have done because of who I am. I can talk football and sport so I feel like I can connect with someone on that level. In all honesty, I try to disregard gender and just connect with whoever my audience is; I think one of my gifts is finding some commonality with the person I’m talking to.
Do I sometimes feel compelled to demonstrate a certain type of behaviour in certain situations? Yes. When I was younger, if I was at a dinner or event and I was the only woman there, I would probably exaggerate that side of me; the more male side of me. Now, I just rock up and I’m just me. I think that comes from confidence. I float around the world and talk to CEOs and high level people across all sectors. The reason I have their ear is because they trust me and I can connect with them. So I try not to see gender. Otherwise I’m not actually helping the bigger issue, one which I see quite a few of my female clients do have.
Vistage: So, with your female clients, are a lot of the issues they face as leaders to do with the challenges they face as women?
ES: Yes. This isn’t revelatory, but I do think we’re wired differently. If there’s one fundamental difference between women and men, it’s confidence. That’s quite a big word but women will naturally question themselves, doubt themselves and go through a lot more emotional turmoil about whether they are enough. With male clients, it’s much more ‘I’ll just crack on and do it’, and then half way through they might think ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ but by that point, they’re already on the way.
‘Fundamentally, in order for women to shift, it’s down to us. If we shift, men will too.’
To use sports as an analogy, if a man feels he’s not good at a sport, he’ll get a coach. He’ll invest in himself so he can hit a golf ball or tennis ball better. Whereas a woman is more likely to think, ‘I want to get better, but should I spend that much money on me?’ It’s a simple analogy but when you take it into the world of business, that’s where women still are. They’re more likely to think, ‘I don’t know if I should get help with that’, but men will seek out help if they think they need it.
Vistage: So how do you think women in leadership roles can become more confident and overcome these barriers?
ES: One of the things that doesn’t help really senior women in corporates is the fact that other women don’t support them. I’ve seen this countless times across the world. Fundamentally, in order for women to shift, it’s down to us. If we shift, men will too. One of the things I’ve witnessed and heard countless times is people treating top level women differently to top level men. If a woman is strong and direct, she’s a bitch, whereas a man being like that is just being a leader - and it’s often the women that will call her that, not the men.
There needs to be more of a sisterhood. We need to praise each other and support each other, and that is happening more. There’s an organisation called Driven Woman, which is now global, which is all about women shifting, changing and growing. And that’s why people join Vistage: because they want to shift, change and grow. For women there has to be more of a willingness to hold up the mirror to oneself and understand where these beliefs come from. Why are you telling yourself these stories? What are the stories and how are they limiting you? If they are limiting you, what can you do about it?
For us to shift, change and grow in terms of confidence, we think we should be able to do it by ourselves - I don’t think that’s possible. If there’s a lack, you need to do something about it. If you were learning to drive, you’d have a driving instructor, yet we don’t take the same approach to shifting our mindset around confidence. I’m where I am because I have a ‘Team Emma’. I have two coaches, a great therapist, someone who does massage and a PT, because for me to be the best Emma I can be, I need a team supporting me. I know, from working with countless women, that I am a rarity. Men will just get a team, they won’t even think anything of it. It’s that mindset change which needs to happen.
ES: What about parenthood? How do you think that impacts and informs the challenges women face?
I read today that the UK’s now got one of the biggest pay gaps. For me, truthfully, I don’t think anything will massively change until there’s more co-parenting. A woman has a baby and then there’s a year where they might not do anything else apart from being a mother. So, where do you go in that year?
As someone who does co-parent, I’m not saying it’s perfect but it splits both the care of children and care of the elderly. At the moment, I think around 88% of care still falls to women. When a woman goes back to work after having a baby, they’re not necessarily the same person, and the job isn’t the same and yet you expect to go back and for things to be the same. That then holds women back from carrying on up the food chain - if that’s what they want to do. At the moment, that’s such a limiting factor.
A client of mine has a two-year-old; she runs a multi-million pound business, her husband runs a number of businesses and she said, ‘If I have a meeting and my child is sick, it’s always me that gets called’. This isn’t necessarily about men changing. It’s about women giving men permission to co-parent. If we as women change our own mindset and behaviour, men will naturally change as well.
Vistage: In your experience with your clients, what else do you think holds women back or limits their scope?
ES: I have quite a few female CEO clients and they’ve just somehow cracked on. There’s one woman in particular that I’m thinking of. She’s hugely successful but she still didn’t believe that she had a story worth telling. Her attitude was sort of ‘that’s just what you do’. A man in the same position would probably naturally think ‘I should go and PR myself’. I’m speaking generally, based on my experience.
When men hit that place, the next point of growth is, ‘I’ll start speaking or I’ll write a book’: personal brand stuff. Whereas most women I’ve met who have set up companies and have global brands will think, ‘what would anybody want from me?’ That’s the mission for me. That’s one of the reasons I run Truth Works. I want to help people and to let women know that their voices are needed.
‘Women being who we are and being our best selves is how we can change things and inspire others.’
There aren’t that many female CEOs and then the danger is it ends up being the same voices at conferences. No disrespect to Karen Brady - I think she’s brilliant - but at every event it’s, ‘here’s Karen Brady, everyone’s heard of her’, or here’s Jacqueline Gold again or the founder of Green & Blacks. We need to hear from more women. One of my clients runs a financial recruitment company and it’s taken her a few months to go, ‘Oh, should I be speaking?’ That’s the difference. There are lots of women running great businesses, employing 150-200 people and generating a lot of cash but the natural step isn’t ‘I’m going to go and talk about myself’. That’s no criticism, merely an observation.
Vistage: What do we need to do to change things and see more women in CEO and other top level positions?
ES: We need a balance of both genders in the workplace. There was a big healthcare comms company that I worked with and they had an all-female board for about five years. There were so many issues on that board. There was too much collaboration, there was too much - dare I say it - female energy. There was another business where it was an all-male board and there was too much testosterone. The businesses I see that thrive, unsurprisingly, have a good balance at senior level. It’s not rocket science: we work well together but we have to make more women believe that they can get to that top place.
There’s also a need for more role models, there’s a need for more mentoring and support. If I can think of all the Vistage groups I’ve spoken to for example, I don’t know what the figures are but I’d say only around 10% are women. Joining mastermind groups, like Vistage, is really important.
I run a quarterly women’s CEO lunch. We have around 35 people on the list, we send out an email, they buy their ticket and turn up. It’s not a membership thing, just something that I organise. When you’re in leadership, it’s really important that you meet other people like you in the same position because it can be lonely. For women who want to be CEOs or are very senior, finding the right small tribes, like the Vistage model, can be really helpful.
I also believe if you can’t find something like that, you should create your own network. As women we need time to talk about things and get it all out of our heads. Even just meeting someone in a similar position for dinner once a month can make all the difference. We need to shift and change our mindset towards personal growth. Seeking out retreats, coaches, things where you’ll meet other people like you can help you create a support network.
Vistage: Are we moving in the right direction?
ES: Yes. Overall, I do think things are getting better. More women are just being themselves and not feeling scared of that. I’ve witnessed it shifting. That being said, there’s still a lot of work to be done because it’s still nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of the balance.
We can sometimes focus too much on the negatives but there are a lot of women doing really cool things at senior level. In comparison to where we were ten years ago, it’s a lot better. A client of mine is this short, powerhouse of a woman, the vice president of a very big corporate. She goes in, is herself and is very proud to be an LGBT woman. It’s not that she’s waving a flag, she’s just saying, ‘I’m who I am and I’m really successful being who I am’. I think that’s the best thing. Women being who we are and being our best selves is how we can change things and inspire others.
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