In 1967, a tobacco ad targeted women with the tagline, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” At the time, there were no women listed as CEOs of a Fortune 500 company.
Five years later Katherine Graham became CEO of the Washington Post, finally breaking the barrier. In the 50 years since Graham’s appointment, women have gained leadership roles until there are now about 74 women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, representing 15 percent of total Fortune 500 top leaders.
But have we come a long way? In some ways, yes. But in other ways, no. In recent months, I have been collecting surveys from women leaders in healthcare asking what barriers are holding them back from reaching the highest levels of leadership in their organizations. My survey explores four primary barriers: mindset, conflicting priorities, workplace status quo, and access to power circles.
Author Lise Vesterlund recently published an entire book about how non-promotable work maintains the status quo, and how most organizations and their leaders aren’t aware of the issue. She defines non-promotable work as tasks that are necessary for the company but aren’t part of the job description and the matrix on which performance is reviewed.
The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work (Simon and Schuster, May 2022), is the result of Vesterlund and her co-authors Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, and Laurie Weingart researching who in an organization is most likely to take on these non-promotable jobs such as note-taking at a meeting, onboarding a new hire, or sending out a meeting summary. Overwhelmingly, women do these tasks.
“We found that women are not doing this work because they really enjoy it or care more about doing the work—and oftentimes, not because they’re any better at it,” Vesterlund said in an interview with Justine Jablonska at McKinsey.com. “Rather, it’s because we all have the expectation that women will do this work.”
Vesterlund and her team found that many workplaces have a cultural expectation that women will say yes to these requests. This is the status quo that is itself a barrier to women achieving higher levels of leadership. The team’s research found that women are 50 percent more likely to agree to these jobs, and that managers are 50 percent more likely to ask a woman rather than a male counterpart.
The research falls in line with what my own data shows: Women leaders find themselves challenged to establish firm boundaries and in saying no to time-eating tasks that will not help advance their careers. I have found that establishing boundaries is so important that I’ve written a presentation on the subject to help guide women into creating boundaries. This is essential for women leaders and a step in the right direction of changing the status quo. You can download my free boundaries workbook here.
My three key elements of successfully setting boundaries are:
- Clarify – Identify your boundary and the consequence for violating it to be sure it’s worth
following through on.
- Communicate – Make your boundary request simple and direct so you can assess
whether you’ve reached an agreement.
- Confront – Resolve the issue without guilt or conflict so that you can preserve the relationship.
Fight the Status Quo
There are two key components of combatting this trend toward having women take on these non-promotable tasks. First is self-awareness among women leaders about their tendencies to say yes and developing boundaries to say no.
Second is for organizations to become aware of this barrier and devise strategies to overcome it such as rotating the workload among all mid-level managers or assigning the jobs to administrative assistants. Changing the status quo, the very culture of an organization, is the possibility with better boundaries.