Women in Leadership… the Tide is Shifting Regarding Gender Equality. But in Which Direction?

By: Janice Krupic, President & CEO, Paragon Leadership International

Recently, my colleague shared that her daughter’s middle school was hosting a gender equality forum. My first internal reaction was, “Really? How sad”. Sad not because they were having the forum, but sad because in the year 2018 there is such a need for the conversation. A need across all ages, ethnicities, and industries.

Seventeen years ago, when I founded Paragon Leadership International, a global executive coaching firm, one of the first service offerings we developed was an “Executive Women’s Leadership” series. It was shortly after the post-9/11 recession, and there were plenty of nay-sayers who knew for sure that there would not be the demand for such an offering and no one would sign up; But signed up they did. This program was so successful that other competitors used our model to launch similar series, and we ran our offering, along with a companion offering, for seven consecutive years.

But, nearly 8 years after launching the first offering, an interesting phenomenon became apparent. Women were no longer wanting to participate in a specifically women’s leadership offering but wanted to be integrated with non-gender specific development. Organizations followed this request, and we began to see large corporations shy away from their women’s affinity groups, or women leadership networks. We were feeling hopeful because we began seeing an increase in women being promoted into senior level leadership roles, and even being appointed to board seats.


However, with a year of incomprehensible news of the treatment of women, I am beginning to question where the tide is shifting.

The first news that comes to mind is the ongoing investigation and fallout of the Larry Nassar scandal. If what Mr. Nassar’s ‘many’ female victims had to endure wasn’t reprehensible enough, the list of MSU medical professionals and high-level administrators tied to the investigation seems to be never-ending. As proud as I would like to be of my alma matter, this ongoing revealing of the treatment of girls and women, and the covering up at many leadership levels, makes me want to temporarily put away my “green & white” flag.

Or, the big pressed stories that hit the entertainment industry, and the many women who fell victim to the outrageous abuse from men who appear to have never-ending egos or, on the other end, non-existent morals or scruples. These stories only recently came to light because of the highly-pushed and publicized “#metoo” and “Times Up” movements. These movements rely heavily on the courageous conversations these women in the entertainment industry are having, and how these women in positions of power use it.  Just last week, the CEO of Intel, Brian Krzanich, resigned after violating the company’s “non-fraternization policy” with a subordinate employee. His resignation adds to the growing number of executives leaving their positions, such as leaders from Nike, Lululemon Athletica, Guess, and many others.

Another questioning instance is the equally incomprehensible stories that did not hit the front page of the press, such as workplace violence against farmworker women. These women are fighting the same war as the women in the entertainment industry, if not a harsher and daily one. Among the factors that women farm workers face, 90% of them identified that sexual harassment is a major problem. Many of these workers (in the thousands for context) must engage in some form of a sexual act with their supervisor, forced by their supervisor, to keep their job, or they will put up with endless amounts of harassment, both sexual and non-sexual. To choose otherwise means they face endless amounts of harassment, both sexual and non-sexual, or have to find work elsewhere, which given limited opportunities is often unrealistic.

These sexual violence scandals make me wonder if there is a correlation between the fear factor of sexual harassment and a woman raising to an executive or board level. 60% of women in the workforce have received unwanted sexual attention, while 1 in 3 women have been sexually harassed at work. Contrary to this, only 1 in 10 men have been sexually harassed at work. Seeing as there are more men holding executive and board roles in the workforce supports this claim, however, this may just be a factor of gender bias.

Maybe we have not come as far as we think we have in gender equality.  In fact, I am disappointed to report that of Paragon’s current company client base, ranging from small-mid size private firms to Fortune 100 organizations, 26% of women are represented in senior executive roles – versus the 74% of men represented at the executive level – while only 5% of women are represented as a chief executive officer, and 22% are represented on public boards.

So, is the tide shifting? And if it is, is it shifting in the wrong direction?  Did we not make the impact and progress we thought we did? Or, is it a matter of women being more courageous in speaking the truth? Just within this year, I personally know of greater than fifteen women who fell victim to gender equality, or abuse from their male bosses and were either asked to leave their company or exited themselves as they decided they had had enough. Whatever the reason, whether we are female or male leaders in small or large organizations, we cannot sit back and let this type of treatment and inequality continue.

It seems that the tide is shifting back for women, and others, in the direction to speak up and engage in the courageous conversations, and I am glad, because it is needed!

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