For years, we've had the same discussions over equal rights and the gender disparity in leadership roles. Women are making gains and taking the reins of top companies, but no matter how high we climb on the proverbial ladder, we still face unconscious bias, stereotypes and our own self-sabotage. The truth is, even the most accomplished women often underestimate and under-sell themselves, and, unwittingly, buy into stereotypes.
I recently experienced firsthand this self-sabotage and unconscious bias by talented executive women when I was conducting a search for a very visible general counsel (GC) position of a public company. Today, every company is asking for diversity. This search was no exception. Certain members of the board were strongly encouraging the current GC, a man described by both his senior colleagues and his reports at the company as an “icon,” to find diverse candidates for the role. After looking through at least 100 very impressive resumes, we presented a number of qualified women and men to our client.
Without exception, every fellow I spoke to decided he was the perfect candidate and was not afraid to tell me about himself and sing his own praises. This self-admiration made me chuckle as I thought about the full panoply of candidates. "If you only knew," I thought. The men, all either sitting or former GCs or senior partners at law firms, were chomping at the bit to be able to fill the gap, believing strongly they had what it took to make an immediate impact and fill the shoes of the “icon.” Further, they, naturally, voiced their confidence to me and the interview team.
The women (seasoned, accomplished 20+ year GCs), however, consistently pointed out their weaknesses or gaps in experience—no direct industry experience, not enough board exposure, not enough public company experience, etc., etc. Several of them voiced concern about being able to fill the shoes of the current GC.
One incredibly talented and qualified candidate, a female GC of a public company, even recommended a male counterpart as she was interviewing, stating that he was a "perfect fit" because he "hit on all cylinders." Another sitting GC told the client that she was not a "strategic advisor," after many years of being exactly that for her CEO and management team.
As I continued to look for more qualified female candidates and to coach both them and the client, in the end, two of the top four candidates were women. These candidates approached every interview with full confidence that they were the right choice, convincing the client, in his words, that they were "superstars." Ultimately, one pulled out for another offer, but not without expressing some concern about filling the shoes of the current "iconic" GC. I thought "Et tu, superstar?"
My takeaway from these experiences: If we want to increase the percentage from 18.5% (Fortune 500 Women GCs 2015) to 30% by 2020 (NAWL's mission), let's help ourselves by getting out of our own way. 81.5% of the outgoing GCs at these companies will be men. So it takes vision—a leap of faith—for both the candidate and the hiring team to visualize the position as female.
We know that the women in the running for these positions are hyper smart and have all kinds of self-analyses going on. It is easy to focus on our weaknesses when we believe that our single biggest (and immutable) obstacle is that our gender doesn't match that of the incumbent. Also, we know that we will, most likely, be a female wingman to a male CEO, another paradigm shift for us all to process.
Ultimately, we have to change our stereotypes about leadership, but, in the short term, we should focus on what we, as women, can control. The women who have "arrived" make no apologies for themselves. They own their success and know that they are the best choice. Ladies, know you got it; now get it!