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Today, women make up about 23% of chief executives of all organizations, including presidents of colleges and universities. Yet only 3% of Fortune 500 companies have women at the helm. Is the glass ceiling the cause, or is something else going on?

CCL’s Sara King and Northwestern University professor Alice Eagly are among those who say the reality for women leaders has been changing. They believe the discourse about women and leadership should move beyond the image of breaking the glass ceiling and instead examine the obstacles, pressures, and trade-offs women face at every stage of their careers.

King and Eagly have identified 3 key factors that affect women in leadership roles today.

  • Walking the narrow band. Women often have to work within a narrow range of acceptable behaviors. They have to be tough and demanding but easy to be with. They need to have the desire to succeed but can’t appear too ambitious. In most organizations, the range of acceptable behavior has expanded in recent years but the narrow band still exists.
  • Being owned by the job. Many high-level professional jobs are becoming “extreme jobs” for both men and women. The 40-hour work week is expanding, and employees are often expected to be available by e-mail and phone 24/7. Work demands can cause problems for both men and women, but may affect women more acutely.
  • Traversing the balance beam. The struggle for balance seems chronic as demands on women’s time and attention increase. Although the experience of multiple roles has been shown to enhance managerial effectiveness and women’s overall well-being, wearing many hats does create challenges. Women do experience conflict between their various roles. And managing their time is a challenge. Women often feel pulled in many directions and they struggle to define and find balance.

What can women do to navigate their way on the career balance beam? Here are 4 important tips:

  1.  Seek out mentors and advocates. Successful women are shown to have had help from above. Build relationships and find a mentor to help you navigate your organization, provide feedback and open doors.
  2. Take risks and accept challenges. Being able to adapt to new roles and new circumstances shows your versatility as a leader. Research shows that women who have stayed in one area of expertise too long or have too narrow of a functional role are not viewed as promotable. Be willing to change jobs and take on special projects to gain experience.
  3. Be decisive and demand results. Successful women leaders make it clear that they expect results. They are able to be decisive and are willing to take an unpopular stance when appropriate.
  4. Be confident. Projecting an effective leadership image requires confidence. Don’t undermine good results with a weak or too modest self-image.

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