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Diversity in Leadership

WSJ article – Women Need More Coaching

According to a Wall Street Journal article on April 4, 2011, a  just-released McKinsey study reports that a lack of coaching and career development for women, especially mid-level women, is a major reason women don’t reach top levels in organizations.  Results were based on a survey of over 2500 college-educated men and women.

Data from Catalyst indicates that while women are 37% of lower-level and middle managers, they are only 26% of vice presidents and senior managers. Only 11 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women, down from 15 in 2010. Report author Joanna Barsh encourages organizations to focus on getting middle level female managers to the VP level through coaching and placement in special developmental programs. 

Lyn Turknett

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Think Female – Think Crisis

Women often find themselves leading “turn around” situations at a higher rate than men.  Like standing on the edge of a cliff, accepting a leadership position in a failing organization or department can be an unsafe career move. In fact, this tendency has been afforded the name, the “glass cliff.” New research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology provides new insights into why and when women are selected for these more precarious positions.

The authors, Ryan, Haslam, Hersby, and Bongiorno (2010) , pose 2 alternative explanations for the glass cliff phenomenon:

  1. Women are chosen to lead turn around situations because they are “second rate” opportunities most men would not accept
  2. Women are chosen to lead turn around situations because they possess the right qualities needed to lead in a crisis

At first, their results suggest the second option. When given a description of an unsuccessful company (versus a successful company) and asked to describe the ideal leader, research participants used more words that are typically associated with women. For instance, words like understanding and tactful were used more often. The authors described this as the think crisis – think female phenomenon.

The think crisis – think female phenomenon was further investigated, though, and the authors found that “women are not seen to be suited for crisis per se. Instead, their anticipated traits are seen to make them more suitable for particular tasks” (p. 10), such as managing people, enduring the crisis, or even taking the blame. When a leader was needed to serve as a spokesperson or improve company performance, the think female-think crisis tendency dissipated.

The glass cliff is thus explained by an association between what is seen as needed in many crisis situations and the qualities stereotypically associated with women. This is very important to keep in mind, both for women considering a particular position, as well as decision makers selecting new leaders. For women themselves, carefully considering the leadership positions you are being offered is key. Although accepting a leadership role in a crisis situation may be a way to prove yourself and get some much needed recognition, you should also think carefully about whether the situation is fixable or if you would be taking a “scapegoat” position. For organizational decision makers, be aware of the fact that this is a form of discrimination. Be sure that you are making selection and promotion decisions based on validated selection tools and giving men and women opportunities that are equally likely to result in success.

Article Referenced: 

Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., Hersby, M. D., & Bongiorno, R. (2010). Think crisis-think female:  The glass cliff and contextual variation in the think manager-think male stereotype. Journal of Applied Psychology, Dec., 1-15.

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The Top 5 Challenges Faced by Female Managers

The fact that women tend to face more obstacles on their way up the career ladder has been well-established. In order to understand how to better help women advance, Ruderman and Ohlott (2002) researched the unique challenges women face as they develop as managers and leaders. After conducting 61 interviews and collecting 276 surveys, they discovered 5 themes characterizing the challenges facing female managers:


1.     Authenticity – The first of the 5 unique developmental needs they identified is authenticity. Women reported struggling with being able to feel like themselves in leadership roles in which they might have felt like they had to act against deeply held values. For instance, women tend to value compassion more highly than do men, which can be in direct conflict with a highly competitive culture. Therefore, to be successful in that culture, women may have to act against their own deeply held values. As explained by Eagly and Carli (2007), “men, more than women, can succeed merely by ‘being themselves’ because they match other people’s concepts of what leaders are like. Women face more complexity because they initially don’t seem as leader-like to others and may also have somewhat different values and attitudes than most of their male colleagues” (p. 173).

2.     Wholeness – The research also suggests that achieving a “whole” life, or a life characterized by a balance between work and non-work roles, was a significant theme for the managers in the study. The business world makes balancing both work and non-work roles difficult, and as women tend to carry more caregiving responsibilities, this tends to be more of an issue for women than for men. It is important to remember that leadership development takes place within this context.

3.     Self-clarity – Women expressed a need to understand others’ reactions to them. While attaining accurate feedback is necessary for anyone working in an organization, it can feel particularly difficult to receive for women due to the stereotypes and role expectations they often face in organizations. There is extensive research showing that women are often held to different (arguably higher) standards of performance than men. For instance, research shows that women who are promoted often have higher performance ratings than men who are promoted (Lyness & Heilman, 2005). Other research shows that that women are penalized in their performance evaluations when they do not perform behaviors that are considered “above and beyond” for their male colleagues (e.g., staying after hours to help a colleague reach his or her deadline). People in organizations also often react negatively to women who are in management positions, because they see their assertive behavior as being counter to their social roles as women (according to society, women are supposed to be caring and supportive of others). Thus, women not only have trouble determining what is expected of them in their roles, but they also have difficulty determining what feedback they receive is biased and what feedback they receive is accurate. This makes it very difficult for women to develop a clear sense of their strengths and weaknesses.

4.     Connection – Women also expressed a need for connection, or the need for close relationships with others, something they felt was often hampered by organizational life. Not only does time spent at work hurt the development of close relationships, but the competitive nature of organizations makes the development of close relationships at work difficult. Almost all of the women in the study reported feeling dissatisfied with the number of close relationships in their life. In addition, the researchers argue that “a sense of connection to other people is the central organizing force in women’s development,” meaning that women, often more so than men, need to feel connected to others in order to grow.

5.     Agency – Agency has been identified as another developmental need for women. As agency refers to behaviors such as assertiveness and exerting power over others, it is typically associated with leadership. However, it is also typically associated with masculinity, which often leads to negative reactions towards women engaging in agentic behaviors. Therefore, learning to reconcile the need to engage in agentic behaviors while tempering the negative reactions of others is an important developmental challenge for women.  In fact, Eagly and Carli (2007) argue that the key is learning to engage in agentic and communal (associated with nurturing and caring for others – associated with the need for connection) behaviors at the same time. 


Many organizations (e.g., General Electric and Deloitte & Touche USA) implement women’s initiatives to help advance more women into upper management. These initiatives generally include Work-Family balance benefits, which have undoubtedly helped women achieve greater levels of Wholeness. Women’s networking groups are also becoming a popular component of successful women’s initiatives. As mentioned in Susan’s post, Turknett’s Women in Leadership (WIL) program, which is an example of an external women’s networking group, is essentially a ‘group mentoring” forum. By providing leadership role models as speakers, as well as the opportunity to connect with other female leaders who have often experienced similar challenges, women can discuss issues around agency, connection, and self clarity. These programs seem like a great way to help move more women up the career ladder. More research is needed, though, to help determine what components of the programs are most helpful, and exactly how they help women grow. This will help organizations design the most effective programs possible in the future, and hopefully help close the gendered leadership gap.

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Female Fortune 500 CEOs

In an article about women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, Fortune magazine reports that fifteen of the Fortune 500 are headed by women. Not what I’d like, perhaps, but better than the results in 2006. In that year there were only ten women heading up Fortune 500 companies, and only twenty in the top 1000. I’m an admirer of Ann Mulcahy – she’s a great balance of tender and tough, respect and responsibility – a great example of our leadership character model. She shares power, ostensibly well, with Ursula Burns, her second in command and presumed successor. See article.

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From Susan Hitchcock

I’m Susan Hitchcock and this is my first time “blogging.” I’m interested in sharing insights on leadership, and women’s leadership in particular. While my background includes a 25 year management career in telecommunications, my current role is with the Turknett Leadership Group as VP Client Services and Executive Director of Women’s Initiatives. We work with leaders everyday in our executive development programs with a special focus on helping companies identify and develop their top talent, including women.

Six years ago we began a monthly Women in Leadership Seminar Series to supplement our one- on-one development activities. The seminars bring together professional women, primarily business executives and high potentials, from many different organizations – women in architecture, finance, government, human resources, technology, software, law, etc. The response to these monthly 2-hour “group mentoring” forums has been extremely positive. Each month one or two “leadership role models” – exceptional women and men with many different backgrounds and areas of expertise – come to talk with the group. In an informal format, they typically share their career story along with their insights on life, leadership, and success. The unique advantage of this forum is the open discussion between speakers and participants, and participants and their peers.

After each seminar highlights are posted on the Turknett website http://www.turknett.com/sectionR/wil2006.asp.  The full 2009 program schedule is also provided and if you are interested, please contact me at susanhitchcock@turknett.com.


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