More than Numbers: The Real Reason We Need More Women Leaders

women leaders in the workplace

Recently, McKinsey & Company released their 2018 report on Women in the Workplace.

The news wasn't good.

Gender diversity, says the glum report, has hit a roadblock.

"Companies report that they are highly committed to gender diversity. But that commitment has not translated into meaningful progress," reads the report.

"The proportion of women at every level in corporate America has hardly changed. Progress isn't just slow. It's stalled."

It's bad news not just because women have worked hard to make headway, but because given the chance, they might well hold the key to improving the way we work.

Changing the Course of our Workplaces

We as a society talk a lot about the kind of workplaces we want to create -- where civilized work and family policies counteract the effects of longer hours and technology-enabled leashes to our jobs. Just as pointedly, Millennials (men and women) talk candidly about the workplaces they're willing to join -- employers offering flexibility and the ability to prioritize their lives at home.

But even as we express desires to change, the dial on such civilized, family-first philosophies has barely budged. One study calls the workplace the fifth leading cause of U.S. deaths.  Our own research shows Millennials stressed out by stereotypes -- women saddled with doing it all at home, men judged by employers for doing any -- and thinking about quitting.

Yet there's good reason to think women could change the conversation. For starters, women bring different issues to the floor. "One of the things that I find absolutely fascinating about having more women in office," Brandeis professor Sava Berhane told NPR recently, "is what men begin to talk about...about issues of family and education and health care."

Professor Berhane was talking specifically about politics, where women's influence is about to be put to the test following historic gains in the recent election. In Massachusetts, where the number of women in the state legislature spiked about 20 percent literally overnight, Professor Berhane expects newly spotlighted issues.

"I think what we're going to see both in the legislature and also in Congress," she said, "is a conversation around issues that affect women in their everyday lives." It makes sense when you consider the unique challenges women face (and men typically don't) on the campaign trail -- such as the need to use campaign funds for child care, and manage children while making victory speeches.

How Women Leaders Create Change at Work

The same phenomenon could play out in business, if we let it. Women bring those same challenges to the workplace. And the large contingent of women leaders here at Bright Horizons are keenly aware of the impact they could have on other employees. One of the takeaways of a recent panel of senior-level women -- all moms -- was a deliberate commitment to being candid about family responsibilities.

"I think that's really important for us to model, particularly as women," said Bright Horizons Vice President of Communications Ilene Serpa on the recent VP Moms episode of the Work-Life Equation podcast. "I think about our COO and how comfortably she talks about her challenges as a working mom. And I think about how we need to think about that translating from us to our team members and the people that we lead."

Children: "The Unseen Stakeholders at Work"

Those kind of benefits will only emerge if we purposefully put females in places where they can drive the conversation and make change. And it's important for more than women. Modern fathers want to be involved parents. But they're hitting some familiar walls. "Just as we've sort of allowed women into the workplace but not really accommodated women's complete lives," Author Amy Westervelt  ("Forget Having it All: How America Messed Up Motherhood") told NPR recently, "we have now asked men to step up as parents but they are still in this same sort of ideal worker scenario that women are."

It's also important for our children -- the people Wharton Professor Stewart Friedman recently called, the unseen stakeholders at work. "If we care about how our careers are affecting our children's mental health," he wrote recently on Harvard Business Review, "we can and should focus on the value we place on our careers and experiment with creative ways to be available, physically and psychologically, to our children."

Which leads us back to that report. Companies are talking a good game about both balance and gender equity. But the McKinsey data shows the cracks. And until more women have their say from corner offices, a lot of it will just be lip service.

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.