Navigating Gender Disparities in the Workplace: Stories & Tips from the Athena Community

by Athena Alliance

Organizations have made significant leaps in recent years to increase the representation of women and women of color in the top ranks of leadership. A recent study by Lean In and McKinsey showed “representation of women in senior-vice-president positions grew from 23 to 28 percent, and representation in the C-suite grew from 17 to 21 percent” between January 2015 and January 2020. Yet hurdles remain that need to be overcome: women still struggle to pass the “first rung” of leadership in their step up to managerial roles, holding just 38% of managerial positions.

But we are inspired time and time again by the women who have “been there,” who extend a hand back to assist other women up the ladder. This includes leaders like Kate Isler, a Microsoft veteran who grew their marketing campaigns globally through the EMEA and beyond before launching her own nonprofit celebrating women’s successes and driving women to “vote with their dollars” at women-owned businesses. It also includes leaders like Liz Tinkham, a seasoned board director and former Senior Managing Director at global enterprise Accenture, who gives back extensively to the Athena community and who launched the Third Act podcast to share the stories of leaders who have pivoted their later-stage careers to renew their sense of purpose and meaning.

In this article, we’ll explore the challenges facing women leaders, the personal experiences of talented leaders like Kate and Liz, and how companies can advance women at every stage of leadership to address the still-significant gender parity gap in the workplace.

Women leaders still face significant obstacles

Experts say the current global climate has set women back a decade in the workplace. In the midst of monumental shifts in our society, including the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread social unrest, women have disproportionately taken the brunt of the fall.

Many working mothers have been forced to decrease their hours or leave the workforce altogether at a time when, just months before, rapid leaps were being made to make gender parity a reality at the highest levels of leadership.

To date, four times as many women have dropped out of the labor force compared to men due to the COVID-19 pandemic. women has considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers in the past six months. And women, particularly women of color, had an exponentially higher chance of being laid off or furloughed during the crisis.

If you see it, you can be it

Women often struggle to envision themselves in the top ranks of leadership. In many industries and companies, there are still limited opportunities for junior-level women to see female role models in positions like CEO, COO, or even as VPs or board directors. Women’s attainment of these roles still lags, with women only achieving parity in one C-level position (filling more than 50% of CHRO roles.)

To put this into context: in San Francisco alone, there are 4,750 male CEOs. Compared to just 250 female CEOs, it would take 17 San Franciscos to create a community of women the same size as men have in a single physical location.

A recent Bain survey showed while 64% of women feel motivated and inspired by the work they do, only 46% feel inspired by the prestige and influence of a senior leadership role-and only 47% are inspired to emulate the senior leaders in their organization.

This trend begins early: female students are more likely to pursue a career in STEM if they have a female STEM teacher. And companies see higher retention of female employees when they are able to see and interact with women who are in higher ranks-women who they are inspired by and can emulate.

From tech startup to global leader

This is why we’re thrilled to launch the Third Act podcast with Liz Tinkham: to share the journeys-including successes and failures-of leaders who can inspire the next generation of rising leaders. Kate Isler began her career in sales at Microsoft in the late 1980s, when it was still a lesser-known mid-size tech company. Over the next three decades, she grew her career and sphere of influence, expanding Microsoft’s footprint from 42 to 82 markets in China, India, Brazil, the EMEA, and North America.

“I felt pressure for sure to perform really well, to do better than my male peers,” Kate explained. “I had male counterparts who moved much faster with less experience.”

After being relocated to Dubai and later to Syria in the 1990s, Kate felt pressure to prove herself as a woman in a nontraditional market.

“I think there was a spotlight on me,” she said. “I was feeling under pressure and terrified… I was afraid of how I would be received by my male counterparts both within the company and the people who we talked to. My husband and I had to write our own playbooks to function, because he was at home with the children, which was not done at the time.”

This was an experience shared by Liz, who reflected in the podcast about being the “only woman in the room” in the early days before gender parity was a central topic of discussion.

“It was in the back of my head… and you kind of get used to it,” she said. “You walk into a room, it’s just 20 men and you. It doesn’t even phase you after a while. But what I love about what’s going on with today’s generation and Millennials is they’re so much more conscious of it. They’re trying so much harder, or calling it out as being wrong.”

As a champion for women and workplace diversity, Kate has taken her own steps to celebrate women leaders and work toward gender parity, starting a nonprofit-Be Bold Now-that aims to build a community of women who inspire, empower, and support each other to take bold action and accelerate gender parity.

“When we tell each other stories as women, the first thing is we find common ground immediately,” Kate says of her ambition to launch Be Bold Now. “And the second thing is we look at those storytellers and say, ‘If she can do that, I can do that.’ We motivate women to stand up and follow their dreams and ambitions.”

She says one of her key learnings in this endeavor has been that women “self-select” out of leadership-a move she hopes will dissipate in the next generation.

“We decide that we don’t have the right network, we don’t have the right skills, we don’t have the right education, or we have a family so it precludes us from following our dreams and really searching out our passions,” she says. “I am a firm believer in, ‘Why not?’ Ask yourself why not. Because you are going to be a better person for following [your passion]. Surround yourself and seek out people who will support you.”

Tips for leaders hoping to advance gender diversity at the top ranks

There is a clear need for women’s representation in the C-suite and boardroom. For companies and leaders hoping to accelerate women’s path to the top ranks of leadership, we have a few tips:

  1. Create clear pathways for leadership. Be intentional in your succession planning, ensuring you create pathways for women to succeed. Ask women leaders for recommendations when you’re considering raises and promotions. Identify skill gaps that exist in your leadership team, and specifically seek out women leaders who have those skills.
  2. Intentionally elevate women to positions of visibility. When you are looking for a company spokesperson for a promotional opportunity, creating videos for internal distribution, or looking to promote employees from within, be intentional about elevating women into positions of visibility.
  3. Encourage and reward employees for taking risks-even when they don’t pay off. Kate credits her own success with Microsoft taking a chance on her-and allowing her to take chances in her professional career. As she states, “”I was fortunate enough to work at the company in a time where everybody was taking chances. And if you were willing to try things, the company was willing to support you to do that.”
  4. In the midst of global unrest, shift your focus and expectations. Women employees are more overworked and overwhelmed than ever before-and burnout is inevitable when organizations don’t shift their expectations. Understand that employee productivity and availability may change during these challenging times, and adjust your expectations to the realities of the working world-which are currently different for men and women.

Originally published at on November 29, 2020.

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