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Making it to the Top: What Successful Women Do Differently

| 4 Minute Read
Gender Equality and Social Inclusion | Mainstreaming Gender Equality

Women are noticeably absent from leadership positions in global development. What can be learned from the women who do make it to the top? Francesca Molinaro shares tips for career advancement in today’s world.

The Case of the Vanishing Women isn’t the title of the latest mystery novel. It is what happens as women progress through their careers. As they move up the corporate ladder, women fall off at every successive rung. The vast majority never make it to the top.

Among Fortune 500 CEOs, it is just as easy to find a man named John or James, as it is to find a woman — any woman, irrespective of her name. Although women account for nearly 45 percent of all employees in S&P 500 companies, they significantly trail men when it comes to representation in leadership. Today, women make up just 4.6 percent of CEOs, down from more than 5 percent in 2017.  This disappearing act is not limited to the private sector. Women are conspicuously absent from important leadership positions in all realms, from Congress to Hollywood, and everywhere in between. When we consider the representation of women of color in leadership, the gaps at all levels are even wider.

Women face numerous hurdles on the road to senior leadership. Pervasive gender bias and structural inequality make it more difficult for women to advance. Because the climb they face is steeper, women develop broader skillsets to support their ascent. Both McKinsey and Hay Group found that women demonstrate more skill than men across a wider variety of leadership competencies.

It is not that men in leadership are unqualified. It is that the yardstick being used to measure women’s competence is noticeably different. Women often face greater scrutiny and are subject to more stringent selection criteria than their male counterparts. The result is that women are more adept at flexing a wider variety of leadership styles as compared with men, who do not face the “double bind” of balancing likeability with competence.

How Does International Development Stack Up?

While the international development sector may be faring better than most other sectors in terms of women’s overall representation, it still hasn’t achieved broad gender parity in leadership. In many organizations women are the bulk of the staff while men hold key leadership positions. Chemonics may have a female president and chief executive officer, as well as an executive management team that comprises 42 percent women, but the development sector overall still has a long way to go. According to one recent study, one in five international development organizations still does not have a single woman serving on its HQ leadership team.

Much has been written about what organizations can do to address the structural constraints that impact women’s advancement – everything from implementing mentorship and sponsorship initiatives to increasing parental leaves and making flexibility the norm.  But what about women themselves? If climbing to the top is not a function of technical or behavioral competence, what differentiates women who do rise?

The Climb to the Top

Looking at evidence from across all sectors, women who do not fall off the ladder do a few important things differently:

1. They Network with Purpose: Women who reach the top are intentional about building their internal and external networks and activating them at key inflection points in their careers. In international development, networking is important for navigating the complexities of what can feel like an “exclusive club.” It often involves getting that important referral and finding out about the many unadvertised opportunities that exist, especially for those who pursue a consulting path. Forget about counting the number of LinkedIn contacts you have! Instead, think about who needs to know about your capabilities and your career aspirations. Actively build and maintain relationships with those in the organizations and sectors you want to grow in and continue to expand your network in a strategic way. Remember, it is not who you know but who knows about you.

2. They Focus on the Right Experiences: In the private sector, the path to the top is most frequently reached by moving into a role with substantial profit and loss responsibilities and having a core understanding of how the business operates. A mistake many women in our sector make is narrowly focusing on deepening their technical expertise without honing their business chops. Just as experience living and working in a developing country is fundamental to growth, so is understanding how the business operates. For your next role, set your sights on a position that will help develop your business acumen and provide the breadth of experiences that will support your overall career trajectory. A strategic lateral move that provides the right exposure can be the best route upwards.

3. They Don’t Let Motherhood Become a Barrier: One of the biggest myths perpetuated in the world of work is that women with children are less ambitious than men. There is no evidence correlating motherhood with a woman’s desire to lead. Company culture has the most profound impact on the choice to leave a company or drop out of the labor force altogether. Women who enter leadership commonly cite successfully advocating for what they need and adapting their own limiting behaviors (such as letting go of perfectionism) as strategies for effectively integrating their personal and professional roles. Both field-based positions and home office roles can provide the right mix of elements that makes being a working mom work. Curious about how women with children in your organization have succeeded in their careers? Ask them and then test what works best for you.

4. They Have the Right Mindset: To be a leader, irrespective of the industry, you must see yourself as one. People become leaders through intentional action — developing a leadership identity and a sense of purpose. The effect you expect is the effect you get. If you think a leadership position is out of reach as a woman, it will be. Your “gender mindset” colors how you see and experience the workplace, how you show-up at work, and ultimately, what you achieve. Need some inspiration?  Ask a successful female to be your mentor, invest in leadership training or hire a leadership coach to help you become aware of and develop your strengths and shift away from your limiting beliefs.

Are you a woman in international development inspired to take your career to the next level? Join Chemonics as we share our insights and experiences at the Women’s Leadership in International Development Forum on June 6. Chemonics is a key sponsor of this ground-breaking event that brings together more than 150 emerging and experienced leaders from across the international development sector.

Blog posts on the Chemonics blog represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Chemonics.

About Francesca Molinaro

Francesca Molinaro is the former director of diversity and inclusion at Chemonics.