Does Your Company Need a Post-Election Women’s Leadership Conversation?

In the wake of the election, many women are disappointed at not having the first female U.S. president. My very non-political sister (who usually couldn’t care less about politics) texted me the morning after that she was quietly crying on the subway on her way to work.

And, of course, many other women, whose candidate prevailed, were elated, or at least relieved.

According to Fortune, Ernst & Young had planned a roundtable discussion on women’s leadership ahead of the election. In light of what many had thought would be the first woman president, the company’s leaders felt it would be a great time for a discussion of women’s leadership, and the strengths women bring to organizations. The discussion at the company, instead, has turned toward the anxieties women still feel about their ability to rise to leadership roles.

Rather than take the view that employees should keep such feelings to themselves, as many companies do, shying away from conversations that could turn political, EY has welcomed these questions.

“We want to make sure people know they won’t get in trouble for asking questions,” the article, by Grace Donnelly, quotes EY’s Global Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer Karyn Twaronite as saying. The piece notes the 300 e-mails Twaronite said she received after the election with questions about everything from visas to immigration and women’s rights. The article points out that EY takes pride in systematically supporting the progress of women and minorities: “EY says its company-wide policies aim to combat natural biases with discipline in order to improve their employee diversity and foster an inclusive environment. These efforts can be difficult and, at times, expensive,” said Twaronite, but she is convinced they’re worth it.

Twaronite goes on to say that studies show companies with more women in leadership positions are companies that are stronger.

This leads to a question from me: Do you think companies with more women at the top are intrinsically stronger than those with mostly, or all, men in executive roles?

The first thought is that whichever women we’re talking about rising to the top have to be well qualified and capable of doing the job they are seeking. The second thought is a fear that, regardless of how qualified and capable the woman is, she may still be less likely to attain those top positions. What do you think?

Part of it is a confidence/arrogance/audacity deficit many super-smart, super-experienced women suffer compared to many men, who have those attributes in spades, though they may lack the experience and an objective reason to believe they will be competent. I’ve seen this myself in my own career, as I’ve written about often in this blog—of working under a confident, arrogant man who has convinced everyone he’s as great as he says he is. He has some glaring deficiencies, which jumped out at me from the first day I worked with him, but few others at the company see what I see. Instead they hear his “radio-ready” voice, his impressive presentation and showmanship skills, and they become convinced he has valuable insights.

Part of supporting women’s progress in any organization is finding ways to make sure you’re supporting a meritocracy rather than a showmanship-ocracy. How can companies make sure the focus in evaluating candidates for leadership is in the right place?

Some orchestras have blind auditions in which the musician, such as a violin or cello player, plays behind a curtain so the people evaluating don’t know whether the person is a man or woman, what race they are, how old they are, or whether or not they are attractive. Similarly, I’ve heard that the Harvard Law Review has its own form of blind auditions for president, with applicants reviewed anonymously, so that those making a decision have no choice but to make their decision based on the person’s critical thinking skills, knowledge of the law, writing skills, power of expression, and whatever other factors the Review’s decision-makers have decided are important. For those who don’t know, President Obama was the first African-American student to be elected to that role.

Is there any way to conduct “blind” auditions for your company’s top posts? Or is there a way to make sure you’re not getting snookered by a world-class showman, rather than choosing the most qualified, experienced person?

Savvy managers are a start. That means training managers to be smart about seeing through the loud talker who holds court at meetings by talking over others, arguing, and expressing negativity without offering specific solutions. Many of us have been in meetings with that person, and know how frustrating it can be as the more diligent, but less audacious, less combative one.

According to the Fortune piece, carefully tracking the demographics of EY’s workforce, and making an effort to nurture women and minorities into leadership positions, is important to EY’s customers. “Employees at EY are 45 percent women and 35 percent ethnic minorities, according to the company. Recruiting, workplace environment, and advancement practices have to focus on retention and inclusion, Twaronite said, because their clients often ask specifically about the diversity of teams and cite it as a reason they choose to do business with them.”

Would having a woman president have made any difference to how other countries interacted with the U.S.? Would it have even been a deficit? In the 1990s, when I was in college, and women were rising politically (I did a very brief internship at the National Women’s Political Caucus), one of my sorority sisters at the University of Alabama said she didn’t think a woman president would be a good idea because many socially conservative countries, such as Saudi Arabia (where women still are not allowed to drive and often require male chaperones), would not feel comfortable interacting with her. They wouldn’t take a woman president seriously. Then I reminded her about Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meier, and she had to concede I had a point.

Like all leadership positions, the first U.S. woman president will require the right woman, not just any woman. But we want to make sure that women candidates have the chance to be fairly considered, based on their abilities and experience, and not on issues outside their control, such as how they are perceived or the biases of others.

On a morning news show I was watching last week, the roundtable discussion suggested that Oprah Winfrey or Michelle Obama would have won the election. Most of the guests agreed that the election results didn’t point to any kind of prejudice, but a worship of celebrity culture, in which a popular celebrity could rise to the presidency, regardless of race or gender. That could be true, but that also is troubling since celebrity is the ultimate form of showmanship.

Is there a way to ensure your company’s leadership selection process doesn’t resort to a popularity contest? How can you make sure you hear the concerns of your female and minority employees, and create a true meritocracy in which the most qualified and experienced people rise?


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