Companies’ efforts to get more women into the C-suite are barely moving the needle. Even with the number of women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies at an all-time high of 41, these women make up only 8.2% of that cohort’s CEO total.
And outside the world’s largest companies, the situation is not much better. In the 2021 YPO Global Gender Equality Survey, 47% of female chief executives at companies with revenue between $10 million and $1 billion said cultural expectations for their gender were an obstacle, compared to fewer than 2% of males
So what is holding women back? Based on my experience as a venture capitalist, I believe the problems include some of the same forces that keep women from raising their fair share of startup funding in Silicon Valley. Here are three ways leaders can support women on their way to the C-suite, by helping them overcome some of the major obstacles they face.
Recognize new patterns of leadership
Whether women are competing for an executive position or for funding for a startup, most of their competitors are likely to be male. The gatekeepers who evaluate them are likely to compare women’s behavior and messaging to this mostly male group, even though cultural norms for males and females are different.
That almost always hurts women. When women act and think differently from men and make different decisions, we tend to rule them out because of our expectations of what a “serious” entrepreneur would do. And when women say the same things as men in the same tone of voice, we tend to dismiss it as inauthentic, so they can’t win either way.
Fortunately, we can help turn this around by becoming aware of our unconscious biases and taking steps to question them. I’ve had to do this myself, even though I’m a woman and an avid supporter of women in the workplace.
Often, it takes a concerted effort. After 12 years in the venture world, including five of those running my own fund, Crescent Ridge Partners, I noticed that only two of the 25 startups in my portfolio had women founders, despite our energetic efforts to find more. I realized that even as I was underwriting female founders, I was expecting them to match the masculine pattern I was used to. Because most of them didn’t, I ended up not investing in very many female-led startups.
In response, I cofounded Ad Astra Ventures with fellow investors Vidya Dinamani and Silvia Mah. Ad Astra is focused on backing high-achieving female founders building both scalable and sustainable companies—an area where women have historically excelled.
Given that women often deliver a bigger return to investors than men, even while raising less capital, we don’t want these founders to start doing things the way their male counterparts do. So when evaluating their pitches, we make a conscious effort to look at what they uniquely bring to the table. We give a lot of thought to why they might be making different decisions than men in a similar situation and encourage them to continue leading and thinking differently, ultimately creating new patterns for success. A similar approach could go a long way when deciding whom to promote to executive leadership, and the emergence of new leadership patterns is one very important step in getting more women into the C-suite.
Rethink our ideas about “risky” candidates
Many companies are embracing diversity, inclusion, and equity, but either don’t know how to implement those principles or aren’t willing to do what it takes. Most default to “safe” candidates who are similar to the people who already hold executive roles. Someone who breaks the mold, if only because of her gender, may seem risky.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The more that company gatekeepers focus on the unique qualities women candidates bring to the table (and the less they weigh superficial differences in work habits, like whether someone has to leave 15 minutes early for a day-care pickup), the larger the potential pipeline of talent for C-suite roles. Additionally, the perceived “risk” often contradicts the actual outcomes. For example, while men may think they put in more time at work than women, women actually produce more work than men.
Learn to love conflict
If you truly want to build a culture that values diversity and innovation, you have to expect conflict. A diverse group of people will not think alike. They may disagree. We as a society are not trained to deal with conflict, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn. There are many professionals with the capability to teach us, and we need to enlist them to help us build a culture where diversity can thrive.
In the meantime, there are many opportunities in our daily lives to learn. One study found that male CEOs who have daughters tend to provide bigger raises to all workers, but particularly women, than those who don’t. Simply opening our ears to the people across our dining room table can give us a good start in creating an environment where more women can become leaders of their companies.
Allison Long Pettine is managing partner of the private investment firm Ridge Group Investments, founder of the venture fund Crescent Ridge Partners, and cofounder of Ad Astra Ventures. She is a member of YPO, a global leadership community of more than 30,000 chief executives who are connected by the shared belief that the world needs better leaders.
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