Women and leadership—it’s not the pipeline; it’s a pathway problem.

Women outnumber men in college—they account for 55% of undergraduates, tend to have higher grades and drop out less frequently than men. Yet as of 2020 women still accounted for only 7.4% of leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies.

Still not shocked? Back in 2015, The New York Times found that fewer women ran big companies than men named John.

In the design industry in particular, 60% of undergraduates are women, yet only 11% hold titles of a creative director or other positions of authority.

Women are well educated, talented and just as hardworking as their male counterparts. So what is the problem? Women don’t necessarily face significant barriers to enter the workplace, but they do face multiple obstacles when it comes to advancement. Women meet more resistance—and more isolation—as they move up the ranks. Article after article, interview after interview reveals why: It’s the impact of implicit bias. Subconsciously held stereotypes.

The Obstacles Women Face in Landing Leadership Roles

Susan Chira interviewed a number of women who almost made it to the CEO’s office in a recent New York Times article. All of her subjects cited isolation, competition and, most chilling, deeply rooted barriers. Veiled assessments, such as lacking “gravitas” or being overly “aggressive.” All comments that imply “not like us.” Yet these same corporations have clear policies against discrimination. And many male leaders clearly state that they want women to advance.

After extensive study, The Harvard Business Review concludes that the sort of biases women encounter today are more harmful and destructive than the blatant discrimination of earlier decades. In a study of the financial services industry, they found that women who entered the industry thirty years ago expected sexism in the workplace. Because of that, they were more emotionally prepared for it. Now their younger counterparts, millennial women, are shocked when they begin to encounter the unstated requirements for success in the industry.

Data from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University predicts that half of the women who earn an MBA will leave the workforce within a decade of graduation. And it’s not just because they have children as many people might assume. It’s frustration.

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Studies reveal that ideas of what constitutes leadership, such as ambition and directness, are considered “masculine.” But those same qualities in women are often perceived in a totally different light. If men are ambitious, women are aggressive. If men are forthright and honest, women are harsh and insensitive.

On top of that, women tend to do a lot of the “soft work” in organizations, like planning birthday parties and cleaning up after events. Additionally, women also tend to act as office confidantes. All of these activities—however elective—undermine women’s authority and reduces the time they have to focus on career-advancing work. In the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic, things have only gotten worse. In today’s Zoom-driven world, women are disproportionately taking on their own work plus most of the childcare, cooking and housework.

Women who succeed are those who can figure out how to balance the contradictions of “masculinity” and “femininity” without getting caught in a double bind. (An example of a “double bind” is the woman who is labeled a “bitch” for being too aggressive, but weak if she is too sensitive.)

The challenge for an ambitious woman is to gain respect and acceptance among her peers. And this is achieved through mentorship and sponsorship. If we are to find parity in the most senior ranks of organizations, we will need more men willing to spend the time and energy to advise, coach and promote women along their career paths and into the ranks of leadership.

Women in leadership already tend to mentor other women. What we need are more male mentors.

Mentorship is Key to Putting More Women in Leadership Positions

Mentorship is a critical component of success. According to the Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, 80% of CEOs have had a mentor. The Small Business Administration cites 70% of mentored businesses stay in business for more than five years. The reasons are many.

Mentors provide insight and knowledge not found in books; they have often walked the same path as their mentees. Most importantly they open networks, which leads to opportunities that would not be available without their influence. A mentor makes a difference. The problem for women is people often select mentees who remind them of their younger selves. If men make up the ranks of leadership, they are mentoring other men. This must change if we want more women leaders. And that starts with men in leadership making the conscious decision to understand their biases and proactively cultivate women (and other minorities) for leadership positions.

Women often don’t know what they don’t know. I’ve spoken to many women who are shocked to learn a male colleague or subordinate makes more money than they do. Why? Men are more willing to negotiate. And women are more likely to accept initial offers without advocating for more. Mentors can make a difference by coaching mentees through the job application and negotiation processes.

Seventy-eight percent of companies report that gender diversity is important in the ranks of their leadership. But unconscious gender biases continue to undermine that noble goal at every turn. As long as women are passed over as mentees and sponsors, they’ll continue to languish in the lower rungs of every org chart.

It’s time to acknowledge the role of unconscious bias in the workplace. Women must advocate for themselves, of course. But men in leadership must also make the conscious decision to help close the gap. Gender parity in the workplace will always be a pipe dream unless we complement desire with action. And mentorship is a great place to start.

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