October 27, 2017 Practice Points

Leadership: Why Aren’t More Women in Charge?

By Susan P. Elgin

As Kimmy quips in season three of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Wow, women really can be anything … except president or late-night hosts.” The line is good for a laugh, sure, but it also underscores reality in 2017: despite all of the gains women have made, it’s still relatively rare for a woman to occupy the top spot. In the article “Why Women Aren’t CEOs, According to Women Who Almost Were,” New York Times’ reporter Susan Chira examined why only 6% of chief executives at Fortune 500 companies are women through interviews with professional women who—for whatever reason—failed to make the jump from the highest ranks in an organization to actually leading it.

The interviews exposed a variety of factors—institutional barriers, personal hesitations, and unfortunately, bias against women leaders—that combined to prevent the women from ascending to the top of their respective organizations. Young lawyers striving for partner (or partners seeking firm leadership opportunities) can learn from these women’s experiences. Some key takeaways:

  • It’s not a pipeline issue. There are plenty of women who are leadership material, but many self-select out of seeking the top job due to family conflicts and other personal reasons, such as the loneliness experienced by being the only high-ranking woman in a company. The Dean of Northwestern’s business school notes that of the women who earn an MBA this year, more than half will drop out of the full-time work force within 10 years.
  • Hard work isn’t enough. Many women believe that hard work and good results should be enough to land them the promotion they seek—without having to actively promote themselves. The women interviewed agreed that self-promotion was necessary, but the women also reported receiving backlash when they did try to grab the spotlight.
  • It’s hard to be unapologetically competitive. There’s only one top spot, and you can’t reach it without a little grit. The former chief executive of DuPont believes that women aren’t taught enough to fight for themselves. In the article, she says “I think we tend to be brought up thinking that life’s fair, that you thrive and deliver, and the rest will take care of itself. It actually does work for most of your career. It doesn’t work for that last couple of steps.” In particular, one woman noted that a subordinate employee that she had hired had no trouble badmouthing her when they were both competing for the same job just a couple of years later.
  • Women lack male mentors. Some of the women reported experiencing a culture where male superiors did not provide female employees with the same harsh—but honest and helpful—feedback they provided male employees because they feared the women would respond poorly or become emotional. In addition, one woman mentioned that male superiors hesitated to take her to dinner or drinks for fear that the gesture would seem flirtatious.

While not an uplifting article, knowing and understanding the barriers women face is the first step in enacting change. The personal anecdotes highlight some areas women lawyers can focus on for personal improvement, such as trusting themselves, advocating for themselves and other female lawyers, and having the confidence to promote their achievements. In addition, when lawyers—both men and women—recognize the issues that stand in the way of women’s advancement within an organization, they can more effectively advocate for structural changes that don’t have the unintended consequence of leaving women behind.


Susan P. Elgin is an Associate at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP in Des Moines, Iowa.

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