Expert: How Women Leaders Can Overcome the Workplace Barriers Holding Them Back

In an interview on our HR Works podcast, Cynthia Sax, Senior Vice President of Consulting Services at Caliper, discussed barriers in the workplace that hold women leaders back from fulfilling their full potential.  In part one of our two-part series, Cyndi describes these barriers and explores what women can do—both for themselves and in advocating for others—to overcome these barriers.

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HR Works: For years, of course, HR managers had been working to eliminate discrimination against women in the workplace, and not to suggest that’s no longer a worry, but today, as women leaders progress in the workplace, they often face more subtle barriers that hold them back from fulfilling their true potential. To help us understand these barriers better, we’ve asked Cynthia Sax to join us. She’s the senior vice president of consulting services at Caliper, a global employee assessment and organizational effectiveness firm.

Her passion and the focus of her work is on identifying the potential within each person and supporting the fulfillment of that potential through individual, team, and organization-wide initiatives. In addition to leading Caliper’s assessment and organizational development and consulting practices, Cyndi is also leading Caliper’s Women’s Leaders program, a talent development program which draws on the firm’s research into the unique attributes, behaviors, and challenges that women leaders face in today’s business end. Cyndi, welcome to HR Works.

Cyndi:   Thanks so much.

HR Works: So, let’s begin by talking about four particular barriers that you have identified. The first one is what you call organizational savvy, the old boy club. Can you tell us what you mean by that?

Cyndi: I sure can. So, organizational savvy really has to deal with how one copes with the reality of organizational politics. Every office place has them, and they can manifest themselves in different ways in the organization based on how the culture has evolved. Every organization has formal ways of doing things, the policies, and procedures, the cadence of meetings and people who attend those meetings. Organizational savvy has as much to do with learning how to navigate those personal roles and responsibilities in meetings and find one’s place in it as it does with those informal, normally unspoken ways of doing things.

So, it’s understanding who the influencer in decisions might be or who has the relationship with someone else, or what happens in the meeting after the meeting, what language is appropriate and understood by everyone in the room, and what language is not as effective or understood. And the reason that this tends to be more of a challenge for women than men in the workplace comes from multiple sources. Our research shows that women tend to be less comfortable navigating those politics than men are and that may, in part, be because since historically, traditionally, there have been more men at senior levels of the organization.

In fact, even today, there are more men at the senior levels of an organization than there are women. It’s the male perspective that has shaped those environmental, political, cultural kinds of factors. And so, what they have found to be comfortable and acceptable may cause a women to feel as if she is outside of that inner circle or group and that she has a harder time breaking in and figuring how to find her place or her voice in that situation because it is dominated or shaped by the male voice.

HR Works: Okay. I see that. Now, the second one you mentioned, the second barrier, is called perceptions of performance. What’s going on there?

Cyndi: Perceptions of performance is when a person believes, in this case, a woman believes that because she is a woman, she must outperform the men in the organization in order to be considered equally as effective. In other words, there’s a subjective quality to the way her performance is being evaluated, that she has to do more, better, faster to be smarter, to be more assertive or aggressive or urgent, to deliver greater results than her male counterparts do. And in most cases, this isn’t dealing with what her actual performance is. It’s dealing with that perception of the title suggests it does, that she thinks that other people are judging her performance than differently.

Perhaps they are because they are expecting that … and I’ll come back to the word voice because I think if we use voice both in terms of one’s … the quality, the actual physical quality, the sound quality of one’s voice as well as how that is heard in an organization, it’s frequently either a gentler or softer voice or one that is not as often heard. And so, the perception of performance says, “I have to be better than the men in order to have the same impact, the same recognition, achieve the same level of success, again, just because I’m a woman, if everything else were equal.”

HR Works: I see. Your third barrier you mentioned, work and family life conflicts. How does that fit in?

Cyndi: This is a big one for women, and I will say that women alone are not the only ones that feel a conflict between their responsibilities at work and their responsibilities to their family. They, traditionally, have held more of the responsibility for managing their households and family commitments and schedule and so on and so forth, and work/family conflict barriers or challenges are those that are related to that, and they can take on a couple of different shapes and forms.

On one hand, a woman may have feelings of guilt for not spending enough time with her family because of work, and this is not just relevant for women who have small children at home. It can be commitments to their partner or commitments to their aging parents or commitments to their pets. Anything having to do with their household can cause them to feel as if they’re taking something away from those responsibilities by focusing on work and have a feeling of guilt about it, not necessarily because anyone’s told them to feel guilty, but it’s almost like a self-generated feeling of guilt.

And I can share with you anecdotally from my experience that just about every woman that I’ve spoken to or whom I’ve reported back results of the surveys in this area and how she has stated it impacts her world, this is one that really, really resonates with many women. The second way that it can impact a woman and cause that feeling of conflict is when they feel as if their family responsibilities are interfering with work. So, the first one is I feel like my work is interfering enough with my family, and I feel guilty about it.

The second one is the flip side of that, that because she’s focusing on her family life or responsibilities, it’s taking away, somehow, from her ability to be impactful in the office. So, she’s not doing as much as she could be, that she should be doing more. I’ll share a personal story about this one with you. I had a new grandchild born on Monday, just a few days ago.

HR Works: Congratulations.

Cyndi: Thank you. Will be leaving work tonight to spend a long weekend with my family and get to meet my new grandson, and then, after that, I’ll be flying to another location for a leadership development workshop with a client and then going home. And I actually found myself, today, feeling pulled in two different directions by having to put off a telephone call with a prospective client, not because she was suggesting that it had to happen next week, but because I wasn’t going to interrupt the time that I had with my new grandchild to take care of business.

And it was only by going through quite a process of thinking about where my values really lied and how I was going to focus my time that I came to a place where I decided I wasn’t going to interrupt the time with my family in order to take care of a business challenge that can wait until the following week. And I just share that as a way to make that come alive for the listeners today to understand the kind of parameters that often influence that particular challenge for women.

HR Works: The fourth barrier is the stereotype threat. Can you explain that to the listeners?

Cyndi: This one’s a little tricky, and so, bear with me while I explain it, and please feel free to ask any clarifying questions, if I’m not explaining it clearly. Stereotypes threat can happen not just to women but to anyone who identifies with a group that would be considered a minority. So, it can happen based on gender as we’re talking about today. It could also be based on one’s race or ethnicity or age or appearance. In this case, we’re talking about women who perceive that there are expectations of how they might behave according to a stereotype.

So, let’s use as an example, for women, it might be that they should be nurturing of other people and that that nurturing quality is considered frequently to be one associated with being a woman. And because there’s that stereotype of behavior, a woman may subconsciously engage in the kind of activity of behavior that that stereotype suggests even if it’s not something that she might prefer to do or be so inclined to do. So, in other words, she might feel as if she needs to care for a coworker if they’re behaving in a certain way, or she may feel as if she should response emotionally to something because the stereotype is that women are more emotional about the way they respond to stressors.

Or she may find it difficult to go toe to toe with a man in a negotiation because, stereotypically, she feels as if women are supposed to submit to men and allow the man to be the more aggressive, dominant personality. The point is that it’s not something that she might choose, and it may not even be something that she can … that she’s aware of, just that she’s conforming with that expectation, that stereotype, believing that there might be a negative impact if she behaves in ways that go against that. It can cause women anxiety, first of all, over being treated in a way that’s stereotypical, even if she has almost made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It can cause her to underperform or to actually reinforce those stereotype behaviors by conforming to them, and it can also reduce women’s aspirations for leadership roles, to hold them back from throwing their hat in the ring or for applying for a position or aspiring to it or even inquiring into whether she might be considered for a more senior leadership role if she does not think that that’s one that would be, and I’ll use it in quotes, “acceptable” for a woman.

HR Works: I think that’s clear. So, that’s four barriers, and let’s talk a little bit now about what to do. What can women do to cut down on the effects of these barriers?

Cyndi: Yeah. That’s a great question. I think first is really understanding that she’s not alone—that many, many women experience the same potential barriers and obstacles. Caliper didn’t pull these four items out of thin air. We actually interviewed women who are successful, women leaders, across about 60 different industries, and they self-described these potential barriers. So, they’re in very, very good company, and there’s a sense of comfort, I think, that comes from knowing that you’re not alone.

The second is, I think, to really be conscious of what choices she might have and what strengths she possesses that she can draw upon in order to be able to overcome those barriers. Again, our research has shown that resiliency is extremely important. So, making sure that if it doesn’t come naturally to her that she develops some skills, support network, some resources, some ways of dealing with setbacks when they do happen so that she can bounce back more quickly. And instead of allowing that to hold her back for long periods of time, instead just step and work over or around that barrier instead of allowing it to get in her way, which women often do.

Cyndi: And then, I think the third thing is by understanding that we’re all going to face barriers sooner or later, it gives us an opportunity, whether it’s this example of barriers or anything else, to think about how we want to show up in those situations when it does. So, if we’re feeling guilty about having to take a business trip and leaving our family with another caregiver, how are we going to deal not only with our own guilt but to also make sure that our family is well cared for.

If we find it that we’re being left out of a meeting and suspect that it might be because you’re a woman, and everyone else in the room is a man, how can you assert yourself to gain a seat at that table, and when you’re at that table, what are some things that you can do to ensure that your voice is heard and valued? So, really thinking about what your strategy is and developing the skills that you need in order to be able to overcome them. We also feel very strongly about self-care. It sounds almost like a platitude today to say it because I think it’s sometimes overused, but we can’t care for other people or contribute to the best possible level of success in organizations if we’re not first taking care of ourselves.

Cyndi:   So, understanding the causes and impact of stress, understanding the connection between our minds and our bodies, understanding what our personal triggers are, and ways to mitigate the impact that stress has on us will allow us to show up as the best possible version of ourselves when it’s the hardest to do that, which are the times when we’re under stress. We also really encourage our clients to think not only about those compensating mechanisms but also about self-care, about mindfulness, and about ways that they can better manage their stress.

HR Works: So, those are internal things, I guess I would say, that women can do. What about proactive steps that women can take with their coworkers to inform them better about these barriers and how to combat them?

Cyndi: So, you’re talking about how women can advocate on behalf of other women in the organization?

HR Works: Yes.

Cyndi:   Yeah. So, I would say, first, to accept the responsibility or accountability for doing that and take the frame of reference or creative frame of reference that, in doing so, one can influence change rather than allowing herself to stay in the victim box and allow it to happen to her. So, by stepping into that era of responsibility, I think it’s a really empowering situation for women. We recommend things like creating a woman’s circle in your organization, a voluntary group that other women could join where you might be able to talk about the challenges that you’ve encountered, share stories about it, not just in what happened, but most importantly, how you overcame it or how you might overcome it and to be able to learn from the other women in the group to be able to do that.

I think the important thing there is not to allow that to become a pointing fingers or placing blame scenario. That doesn’t help anyone. That doesn’t help women, and it doesn’t help the organization. So, not to have the mindset of a victim, but rather, and again, an empowering environment. Women learn from each other, and while those networks exist both formally and informally in organizations in traditional males ways, I think for women to create one on their own allows them to be a little bit more proactive about how they can find that same kind of support that has traditionally been available for men.

So, that would be one. I also think it’s not just individual women’s responsibilities to change this. It’s a business problem, not a woman’s problem. We know that financial business results are significantly higher for organizations that have greater female representation on their boards of directors and in their senior leadership positions. So, if an organization doesn’t already have a proactive diversity plan for developing potential women leaders and promoting them, it would behoove them to do so. Again, not just because it’s the right thing to do for a significant population of our employees that happen to be women, but also, again, because we know that diversity leads to greater business results.

So, I would also put some of it on the shoulders of businesses and not just on women. If you are already a woman leader in your organization and have achieved a level of success, this is a great time to pay it forward by mentoring less senior women in the organization, providing them with not only a safe place that they can share some of their challenges with and get some feedback and advice, but also to be a role model and share with them what some of your stories have been and how you overcame, successfully overcame some of the barriers that she might be encountering or to help her break down some of those barriers.

And I’ll just share that, again, it’s a personal story. In my career, some of the most significant mentors in my career have been men. So, while there is something that a woman can, a perspective, that a woman can bring to another woman in a mentoring relationship, there are also some things that men have taught me, in particular, about how to navigate those organizational politics that I might never have known otherwise. So, if you’re seeking a mentor, I don’t think you only have to seek a male mentor … a female mentor. A male mentor can be just as effective.

HR Works: That’s helpful.

Cyndi: Yeah. Well, I hope so. I think the other thing I’d like to add is that we all make impressions on other people, and those perceptions that other people have of us is very important. Just as you noted that some of the ways of overcoming things could come from within a woman, some of it comes from outside, and I think we have as much of a responsibility to help shape the perceptions that others have of us as we do to manage our internal, emotional state and feelings as well.

So, thinking about how our appearance can project the kind of image that we want to support our professional brand, to make sure that we’re communicating, speaking in ways that bring the respect that we expect from other people and that we want from other people, to think like leaders and to act like leaders, that only strengthens a woman’s ability to be perceived by others as if she is ready for a leadership position and capable of assuming those responsibilities.

In part two of this series posting tomorrow, Cyndi explains what HR can do to help ensure that women leaders aren’t being held back from fulfilling their potential as well as reveal more research-based insights into what women can do to advocate for themselves.