PROFESSOR: The Reason Women Aren't Successful Is That They Don't Ask For What They Want

Victoria Medvec Kellog

This editorial is part of our GREAT DEBATE feature ‘Why Aren’t There More Women In Positions Of Power?

Women don’t hold positions of leadership because they’re just not being bold enough.

According to Victoria Medvec, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and director of its centre for Executive Women, it’s really as simple as that.

We recently caught up with Dr. Medvec, and here’s what she had to say about women and power:

First of all, what exactly does the centre for Executive Women do?
We’ve been in existence for 10 years now. We help women move ahead and into board of director positions for Fortune 1000 companies. We have educational programs to help them leverage their skills and navigate political office environments. We also sponsor a lot of research. We have a database and provide that information free of charge to search firms.

We started when four faculty members, including a male CEO, Walter Scott [formerly of IDS Financial Services], saw how the world was suffering for lack of female leaders. 

How do you work with women and prepare them? 
We really highlight the need to ask and negotiate for yourself. There’s some interesting research that just came out of Virginia Tech explaining that women are far less likely to speak up during a meeting. So we talk about how to make yourself effective in meetings and interactions. It’s not how smart you are, it’s how you get stuff done in groups, how you lead. All of those skills are critically important when it comes to movement from the middle to the very top: how to influence change, deal with difficult audiences. 

What have you found through all of your research?
There are lots of women in the beginning of the pipeline, in the middle, but not at the top. There are a lot of things that contribute to the situation. If you look at the vast amount of research:

1. Women don’t ask. They don’t negotiate for themselves. Women don’t ask for promotions and visible assignments. And not only are women not going to get them, but sometimes women are perceived as not wanting [these assignments]. They are not thought of for those opportunities.

2. And then there’s the issue of risk-taking. One thing that we found is that women aren’t taking P&L (profit & loss) roles, which reduces women’s abilities to then move into more senior roles. Most director appointments come to those who have experience running a unit. Women are very comfortable working in functional roles, and they move up within that area. To take on a P&L role requires a bit of risk-taking. One of the reasons why women are occupying very few board seats is because they don’t have P&L roles.

How is the structure of the workplace changing? 
We’re in a global workplace. We’re more connected, there’s more distant officing, and I’m not sure that advantages women. If women have a stronger relationship piece, that’s dampened in the virtual world.

Where are we at today? Are we progressing? Stagnating?
I don’t think we’re stagnating. The numbers look more like we’re stagnating than is the reality. Women are now on 14 per cent of boards versus 12 per cent a decade ago. That may not appear statistically significant, but before, the same women were on all those boards. Today it’s a diverse group, especially since now there’s a restriction on the number of boards people can serve on.

The university system is a lot more egalitarian and doesn’t necessarily prepare us for the “real world.” Would you agree?
Not quite. The university system and “real world” for entry-level employees are actually fairly similar. The discrepancy is between entry-level jobs, mid-level jobs and those at the top. When you’re young, you don’t have to negotiate for yourself. The system takes care of you. When you move up, it’s much more important to negotiate for yourself.

Should we be teaching that stuff in schools across America? Should it be required course material in universities?
We absolutely should be teaching that stuff. People develop habits over time. These topics need to be taught and reinforced at younger ages. 

SEE MORE OF THE GREAT DEBATE: ‘Why Aren’t There More Women In Positions Of Power?’ >

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