How Your Association Can Support Women on the Path to Leadership

Last month, presidential candidate Senator Amy Klobuchar asked whether a woman with the same experience as fellow candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg would have the same chance of becoming president. “Do I think we would be standing on that [debate] stage if we had the experience that he had? No, I don’t,” she said. “Maybe we’re held to a different standard.”

After Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg entered the race, columnist Jessica Valenti lamented the fact that “men are more likely to believe themselves ready to run for office or able to hold a political position, no matter what their experience, while women are far less likely to believe the same about themselves—even if they have a lot of experience.”

These comments fueled many conversations about leadership opportunities for women. Why doesn’t every woman have the confidence to pursue the same leadership opportunities as equally or less qualified men? Maybe because they don’t see enough role models in boardrooms and executive suites.

The abysmal state of women in corporate leadership

In its Women in the Boardroom report, Deloitte said it will take at least 30 years to achieve gender parity in the boardroom. Why so long? Judging by the depressing numbers in four of the countries included in their research, women have a long way to go.

Percentage of CEO positions held by women:

•    Canada – 3.1%
•    Australia – 4.5%
•    United States – 5.2%
•    Ireland – 7.8%

Percentage of board seats held by women:

•    United States – 17.6%
•    Ireland – 19.9%
•    Canada – 21.4%
•    Australia – 25.4%

Percentage of board chair positions held by women:

•    United States – 4.4%
•    Canada – 5.7%
•    Ireland – 6.1%
•    Australia – 6.7%

It gets worse. In 2018, only 2.2% of total venture capital (VC) funding went to female founders, according to Fortune. In contrast, all-male teams got 76% of VC funding and teams with at least one female founder received 12%. The average deal size for a company led by a man was $17.3 million, but only $5.9 million for a company led by a woman.

Another report found that women represent 13% of startup founders but own only 7% of founder equity. Female employees represent 34% of startup staff but only hold 20% of employee equity.

Closer to home, Craig Weiss researched gender parity in the learning technology industry: only 36% of learning tech executives are women. We’re bucking that trend at WBT Systems: women fill 5 out of 7 positions on our management team.

Even though learning tech companies are in the professional development business, Weiss learned that only 44% of them have their own internal leadership development programs. What’s worse, more men participate in those leadership programs than women.

women on the path to leadership

How does your association and industry leadership compare?

It’s time to look at your numbers.

•    What is the percentage of women on your executive committee or in officer positions?
•    On your board?
•    Chairing and serving on committees?
•    Participating in leadership development programs?
•    In staff leadership positions?

If you can find studies on gender parity in your industry or profession, what do those numbers tell you? Know your baseline numbers so you can track progress as you ramp up leadership training and build a more inclusive leadership pipeline.

Factors leading to the lack of leadership opportunities for women

The Deloitte report mentioned several factors that keep women out of leadership.

Lack of role models. This problem is evident in the statistics shared above.

Outdated workplace cultures.  A lack of attention to inclusivity, policies and practices that make it difficult for people to juggle personal and professional lives, and an inability for people to raise inclusivity concerns are just some of the signs of a dysfunctional work culture.

Unconscious bias. “People still simply bring on people like themselves,” said one of the Deloitte participants. A Procter & Gamble executive said, “Bias still gets in the way—bias of who you know, who’s like you, or who performs and operates the same way you perform and operate, whose style is more similar.”

Many managers tend to associate with, promote, and hire people like themselves—that’s the danger of hiring for a cultural fit.

Stereotypes. Many people still have the misperception that women don’t take risks or can’t juggle family and work. They hire and promote based on their mistaken image of what a leader should be, and that image is usually based on traits common to many male leaders.

Lack of sponsorship. The Deloitte report said, “Women don’t receive the same level of sponsorship that often leads to success for their male counterparts.”

Economic environment. “When things are really great, [there's] lots of money, lots of focus, lots of spotlight” on diversity and inclusion, said Carla Harris, vice chairman and managing director at Morgan Stanley. But if there’s a recession, “the intensity goes from 10 to 1, and that’s when you lose your pipeline.” Even if there’s less money to spend, the focus on equity should not suffer.

women on the path to leadership

How your association can support women on the path to leadership

Awareness. You can’t solve a problem until you accept you have a problem. Associations can shine a light on this issue and encourage companies to do the math and assess their leadership situation.

Best practices for an inclusive culture. The drive for a more inclusive workplace and association must come from the top. Leaders—staff and volunteers—must put policies and practices in place that help build an inclusive workplace and leadership culture, and they must be held accountable for building that culture.
Associations can establish best practices for an inclusive workplace culture in their industry. The Global Semiconductor Alliance launched their Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) to significantly increase the number of women entering the semiconductor market, and elevate their participation on boards and in leadership positions. WLI plans to establish best practices for companies to better nurture, network, mentor, and promote women, and programs and projects to help women succeed within their companies and with their own companies.

Unconscious bias training. Associations can offer training and resources that help people become more self-aware of biases, for example, questions to ask yourself or to discuss as a team. This type of training should be mandatory for staff and volunteer leaders.

Role models. To combat stereotypes, women and men need to see female roles models who exhibit all kinds of leadership styles. Emerging women leaders shouldn’t feel pressure to conform to the male leadership model.

Support. To ensure women enjoy the benefits of sponsorship, associations can establish mentoring programs, informal coaching sessions, masterminds, and cross-generational women’s groups. In these programs, women can seek advice, find mentors, see role models to emulate, and practice stretching their leadership comfort zone.

Governance policies. Limit board and committee tenure so more people have the opportunity to serve. Establish criteria for board service that are based on the skills, insight, and perspective someone brings to the table, not their connections.

Leadership scouting. Creating an inclusive leadership culture requires intention and effort. Appoint volunteers who scout and recruit candidates for leadership development and service.

Don’t assume leadership prospects will make themselves known somehow. Use your data to find them. During new member onboarding, collect information about their leadership interest and experience inside and outside of work. Update this information each year at renewal.

Leadership development. Make it your mission to train leaders not only for your association, but also for your industry. Establish online leadership training programs that cover topics such as strategic thinking, delegation, performance management, teambuilding, emotional intelligence, and communication skills.

Consider offering women-only classes in assertiveness, personal branding, leadership development, and time/stress management. Provide coaching and peer support groups for new and veteran chapter and association leaders.

A yearlong emerging leader academy can meet in person once or twice a year in addition to regular online meetings. Many graduates of ASAE’s Diversity Executive Leadership Program have gone on to serve on ASAE’s board and hold association C-suite positions. “During their two-year term, DELP scholars receive membership in ASAE and registration, travel, and lodging to ASAE annual meetings and other select education programs and events, along with a variety of additional professional development benefits.”

Increasing diversity is not only the right thing to do for an organization’s culture, it also leads to better business outcomes. Per the Deloitte report, diversity leads to smarter decision-making, contributes to the bottom line, powers innovation, and protects an organization against blind spots. By building a more inclusive leadership culture, you’ll become a more equitable, appealing, and rewarding workplace and professional community.


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