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Women and the C-Suite

posted Sep 18, 2013, 6:19 AM by Lisa Shelley   [ updated Oct 1, 2013, 3:19 AM ]


I find it interesting how the discussion of the low numbers of women in C-level leadership positions is generally framed. 

One perspective is that the “establishment” is holding women back, the Glass Ceiling theory. The premise of which is that there are discriminatory practices at work preventing women from rising beyond a certain level in management. 

Another perspective is that women themselves have held back and not done enough to push back on the establishment. I’ll call this the Lean-In theory. The premise of this perspective is women haven’t taken the necessary initiative and risk to achieve executive leadership positions. They haven’t put themselves forward adequately. 

I don’t mean to imply that these two theories aren’t valid considerations for some women. However, what is interesting is both of these commonly discussed theories are predicated on the idea that the majority of women don’t attain something they actually desire.

There is yet another perspective you don’t hear discussed in business forums, and as often is the case, what goes unsaid is the most informative.

What if the problem is simply that many women, maybe even a majority of women, simply do not want the lifestyle that goes along with these roles? What if the problem is the business culture itself?

What if the women don’t want the lifestyle attributed to C-level leadership positions?

Could the lack of women in the C-suite be analogous to the canary in the coalmine warning us of an unhealthy environment?

Have we given fair consideration to the idea that many women may see, define, and experience success differently than their male counterparts? Rather than a singular focus on reaching the pinnacle in one aspect of their lives, women tend to value a more multi-dimensional life experience, which often is not possible with a C-suite role.

Have we given fair consideration to the idea that many women may see, define, and experience success differently than their male counterparts?

My perspective on gender differences has always been if you look at the normal distribution of many characteristics represented in men and women, you’ll see a perceivable difference between the distributions’ midpoints. This is true no matter how the tails of these distributions generally overlap. Applying this concept to how women and men view success, it’s not surprising to me that in our current corporate culture women are under-represented in the C-suite.

In my corporate career, I rarely met a woman who felt that her success was hindered by discriminatory practices, thankfully. I also rarely met women who wanted a seat at the executive table, but lacked the initiative to take it.

I rarely met a woman who felt that her success was hindered by discriminatory practices

I met many talented women who aspired to and achieved executive leadership positions. And I met many, many more women, with a lifelong achievement focus, who simply chose to create their own version of success. These talented and capable women chose to scale back significantly, or leave the corporate world entirely to start their own businesses, work for non-profits, and yes, some chose to spend more time with their families.

One very unique attribute that I noticed among these women was they viewed their career, and life, in chapters; each chapter with an important focus and growth opportunity contributing to an overall richness of life. They didn’t singularly focus on a specific definition of success or follow an orchestrated plan leading to a culminating achievement.

Women view their career, and life, in chapters; each chapter with an important focus and growth opportunity contributing to an overall richness of life

If we truly want to create change, maybe we need to talk more about why we would like to see more women in the C-suite. Are we after parity for parity’s sake? Or do we genuinely see opportunity to build more successful and innovative businesses through inclusion of more diverse perspectives at the leadership table? If we can really see that opportunity, maybe it’s time to stop defining success for women and instead challenge our assumptions about the culture in business. Maybe we need to create a business environment that encourages a broader spectrum of leaders to lean-in.

Maybe it’s time to stop defining success for women and instead challenge our assumptions about the culture in business

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Photo courtesy of ozz13x

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