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Selena Rezvani Interview: It’s a Woman’s World, Too

Working women have made great strides in recent years, earning advanced professionals degrees and entering the workforce in record numbers. CEOs like Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard Co., Ursula Burns of Xerox Corp. and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo Inc. are heralded as examples of how far women have come, but the truth is that while they make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, women represent only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. Selena Rezvani, women’s leadership consultant and author of Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and—Stand Up For What They Want, talks about why there are so few women in the C-suite and what companies can do about it.

Workforce Management: Why are there so few women in leadership positions?

Selena Rezvani: I think one reason is that workplaces are man-made and have a culture that rewards a male style. I think women self-promote in a different way than men do, and the workplace really rewards those who advocate on their own behalf, who really go after what they want. So part of the problem is the environment we work in and part is how we put ourselves forward.

WM: And how do women put themselves forward in the workplace? In your book Pushback, you argue that asking for what you want is critical to success.

Rezvani: Women have an uneasy relationship with power, and negotiation is a form of power. Women are very fearful of how it will look if they push too hard. The best negotiators see the world as very negotiable and up for revision. One way to help us feel more comfortable is to see negotiation as a conversation that ends in agreement. So often we put our counterpart on this grand pedestal, often because they are an authority figure. Instead walk in a more peer-to-peer equal way. We don’t need to be quite so deferential.

WM: Why are negotiating skills so important for women?

Rezvani: Because of what it can yield. It’s very much tied to the bottom line in terms of how often you negotiate and how effectively you do it. Women are excellent at this when they get an opportunity to do it. It’s a skill that’s direly needed in a female leader, or in any leader.

WM: What are the strongest skills that women bring to the workplace?

Rezvani: There are a few skills that make women especially apt as leaders today in the global, decentralized and flatter workplace. One is women’s ability to be inclusive. We know more than ever that a top-down approach has fallen out of favor with employees and isn’t the most effective way to motivate them. In a Merrill Lynch study of female and male financial advisers, it was proven that women are very comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know it all.’ That’s in contrast to male financial advisers who tended to favor hot or trendy stocks and gloss over what they didn’t know.

Another skill is having a strategic view. We hear terms like ‘strategic’ and ‘visionary’ the higher up you go in an organization, and women have an ability to consider the short vs. long term. Women are known as the ultimate multitaskers. That’s what so many of us are looking for in a leader—someone who is looking forward and setting a clear direction. And women are naturals there.

WM: What role have companies played in developing women into leadership roles?

Rezvani: I think a lot of female leadership tracks with corporate women’s networks. We saw those networks formed at IBM or AT&T back in the 1980s because there was a sparse woman here or there. They really functioned as a support group. Interestingly, the women’s networks have shifted from the 1980s to the 1990s from a support group model to more training and development with a focus on mentoring. Today they’re not painted as a lunch and learn, but as a place to do something that benefits the bottom line.

WM: What can companies do better?

Rezvani: One thing is it’s been shown that sponsors can make a real difference for women rather than mentors. A mentor is a friendly guide but a sponsor is someone who will pound the table for your advancement, someone who will take actions to further your career like inviting you to a high-profile meeting. In a sponsorship culture there is an expectation that part of your job is to bring up more junior employees and develop them.

Another thing companies can do is aim for critical mass at the top. Sometimes you’ll see a token woman on a board like Andrea Jung at Apple. It’s not that encouraging. Companies want to shoot for at least a third of their leadership team be women. The novelty goes away when you have a group and not just one woman. You tend to be less distracted and more productive.

WM: With high-profile executives like Carly Fiorina, Ursula Burns, etc., it seems that the glass ceiling may be cracking if not shattering, yet we still hear about the dearth of women leaders. Can you explain that?

Rezvani: It’s disturbing that there’s so much talk about the dearth of women at the top, whether you’re talking about boards or in C-suite roles. There’s so much buzz and yet I see very little sense of urgency on the part of companies to do something about it. That’s the strangest thing, especially in a recession when companies are looking so creatively for any little penny they could save. Over and over again it’s been demonstrated that when you have more women at the top you are a more profitable company. In the last decade we’ve seen women move into higher-level roles, and we’ve certainly seen more media attention around this question of ‘Where are all the women?’ But when we’re looking at the CEO of Xerox we need to be careful to consider: ‘Is she part of a trend or a singular success?’ It’s really easy to say, of course ‘We’ve progressed, look how far Hillary Clinton got,’ or ‘Hhey, my boss is a woman.’ It’s really easy to look at these things and think we’ve reached 50-50 parity, but you really have to look at the numbers and at who’s steering the ship. Nine times out of 10 it’s not a woman. When less than 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, it doesn’t paint an optimistic picture to me.

WM: Why is change so slow in coming?

Rezvani: There is a reluctance to take a hard and clear stance on this issue of gender in the U.S. Gender is a really touchy topic. People don’t want to acknowledge there is a problem. Many like to think that their company is 50-50 inclusive, but in reality that’s not always the nuance of the culture. There is a reluctance to face that there is an issue. Also, in the U.S. we’re terrified of quotas unlike our European friends.

In Europe, there is a different sense among the countries that have mandate by law quotas on boards to make sure that they are gender-balanced. It’s seen as a social justice issue. That’s something that I’d love to see here in the U.S.

What some companies do is pick targets not quotas, and they will hold leaders responsible for sponsoring women. P&G comes to mind. They tie executive compensation to the executive track record of promoting women. That’s a very strong stance. Most companies aren’t willing to go there.

WM: What are some of the workplace obstacles women face today, and how are they different from those of 30 years ago?

Rezvani: Today, this inclusion problem looks different than in 1965. It’s not as overt. You’re not as likely to get tapped on the behind, but what we do see today is microinequities—smaller, hard-to-prove minievents. Like, ‘I’m not going to ask that pregnant woman if she wants to lead the project because I assume she’s not going to be up for it’. Some men who had done that have even said, ‘I wasn’t trying to discriminate; I was trying to look out for her.’ It’s paternalistic, not malicious, but it can create an issue. Or favoring those who look like you, like young males. It’s hard to point to and say, ‘Look, I’ve been discriminated against.’ It’s not like an offensive email you can take to HR as proof.

We’ve been ingrained with what a strong leader looks like, and it’s almost always a tall, Caucasian man, often with gray hair. A woman, a young woman, or a woman of color is the opposite of that image. It takes time for people to get used to that image when all of us have been indoctrinated to see the ideal leader very differently.

Rita Pyrillis is Workforce Management’s senior writer. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.