I  had the opportunity of hosting a panel discussion at the 2015 Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology annual conference where strategies for women to navigate obstacles and challenges in their career advancement were discussed. I was joined by esteemed gender and negotiation researchers Dr. Linda Carli and Dr. Alice Stuhlmacher and fellow leadership consultants Dr. Laura Finfer and Dr. Emily Amdurer to offer advice on how to balance gender inequity in leadership ranks. Below is a summary of the discussion. 

Although leadership gender inequity has been long discussed among leadership researchers and organizations, little practical progress has been made. For example, Fortune reported that in 2014 the number of female CEOs leading the Fortune 500 reached “historic highs” with a mere 24 (only 4.8%). While we may have moved from discussing a “glass ceiling” to a “labyrinth” in terms of career advancement, there is still a ways to go for women and minorities.

From our discussion, a number of themes emerged, supported by both research and practice in the field of psychology, on how to support career advancement as an organization, and advance one’s own career. While the panel focused on women, the advice that follows provides appropriate techniques for any employee to advance his or her career.

At the core of the issue is being perceived as ready for advancement. This means both being seen and being competent. For organizations, then, the advice focuses on the corollary – ensuring that all individuals have the opportunity to be perceived as ready for advancement, and putting support systems in place to overcome recognized imbalances along diversity lines. Here are a few ways that you and your organizations can support career advancement for everyone, and help balance gender inequity in leadership.

1. Relationships with Advocates and Sponsors

The old cliché of “it’s not what you know, but who you know” applies here. Building relationships with key decision makers means they know you and your capabilities, and can therefore advocate for you should a position become available that aligns with your skillset. Particularly for women, seeking sponsorship from men in positions of power can be a beneficial avenue for advancing one’s career.

Ensuring the relationship is mutually beneficial is a great way to prolong and foster it. Don’t be that friend who always asks for help moving but is mysteriously unavailable when you need assistance. Consider how you can help your sponsor achieve his or her goals and offer your skills.

Notably, men seem to “get more” from the relationships formed in sponsorship programs. Research indicates that there are some behaviors that men are more likely to exhibit than women, which may underlie the differing benefits.

To realize the maximum benefits from advocacy and sponsorship, ensure you:

  1. Are specific with your sponsor about what you expect from them
  2. Keep the sponsor informed on what you want to learn or grow in
  3. Offer something in return for their time (i.e., mentoring one of their junior staff, assisting on one of the sponsor’s key initiatives).

Organizations can formalize sponsorship and advocacy programs or simply facilitate introductions. In designing formal programs, a key consideration of success is fit between the employee and the sponsor. A frequently suggested explanation for why informal sponsorship often shows better outcomes than formal programs is that informal mentoring happens organically as the relationship evolves. Both individuals are more invested and committed, therefore increasing motivation to participate. Seriously considering the chemistry between employees and potential sponsors, and designing the program activities to foster a deeper relationship can help. Other organizations choose to provide avenues for high potential employees to meet organizational leaders with the explicit purpose of seeking sponsorship and career support.

Regardless of the level of formality, encouraging employees to seek out advocates in the business will help them both broaden their networks and become exposed to varied perspectives on the business.

2. Opportunities to Strategize & Demonstrate Strategic Thinking

Another potential roadblock to advancement to senior leadership positions is not being seen as a “strategist”. Creating, communicating, and overseeing the execution of a long-term strategy is far different than being the executor. Individuals who are known for getting things done and quickly addressing emergent issues in their organizations are less likely to spend time flexing their strategic muscles. They are too much in the “here and now” to think that far into the future.

Leaders who are known for executing and getting things done will need to let go of the bias for immediate action to take a longer-term approach. Although both men and women can fall victim to this execution bias, there is a commonly held opinion in many organizations that women are less strategic than men. In reality, research suggests that women are not less capable of being strategic, but they can be less likely to show up as strategic.

One potential reason for this, put forth by communication researchers, leans on the language used by men and women to communicate strategy. Women are more likely to offer their opinions as suggestions and use qualifiers that diminish the impact of their message (i.e., “I don’t know, but…” or “I was just thinking…”). In this way, it is not only about having the good ideas but communicating them in a way that makes others take notice. This is why it is critical for leaders, particularly women, to practice being strategic before ever being required to do so and to receive feedback that will help them refine their approach.

The leadership transition between executing work and facilitating others’ execution of the work can be a tough one. We encourage employees to find opportunities to engage in strategic discussions with leadership, offer a perspective on the future of the business, and identify opportunities to demonstrate strategic thinking. Strategizing will increase the likelihood that leadership will consider them for a next level role.

Many organizations formalize these sorts of interactions to provide their high potential or emerging leaders with strategic opportunities. This may include working together to solve a real business problem and presenting the solution to senior leadership. Other activities we have seen work well include small group, informal discussions with leadership where high potentials can ask questions about the organization’s strategic direction and provide their input. Whether formalized or informal, programmatic or one-off sessions, the key is to get future leaders thinking strategically and get current leaders to take note of their ability to do so.

3. Taking Risks (and providing a parachute)

The last theme that emerged from our panel discussion was the need for safety to take career risks. Gender research suggests that when men and women consider their readiness for a role, women are more likely to feel unprepared if they do not have every skill requested in a job announcement, whereas men often still consider themselves a solid candidate for role even if they do not meet all requirements. Practically, if a job posting asks for applicants to bring five skills it seems as though women tend to take that more literally than do their male counterparts. Anecdotally, our consulting panelists identified female coachees who shared similar concerns about their readiness for the next role. In some circumstances, the result of this could be a reduced number of qualified female applicants to leadership roles.

Emerging leaders should remain open about their career desires and potential jobs. Share this information with trusted bosses and sponsors, and ask for feedback on fit for role, how to prepare, and how to present oneself in the hiring process. Social support increases one’s feelings of safety, and hence can create an environment for intelligent risk taking. Once in role, ask for support. There is a learning curve required to come up to speed and it is perfectly acceptable to need help onboarding. Remember that great network of supporters you built in the advocacy stage? Continue reaching out to them for advice to facilitate your ongoing success.

Organizations can encourage high potential leaders to take career risks by providing a parachute. Safety to take risk, in this context, means that employees are urged to apply for stretch roles and provided support to be successful once in role. We have seen the introduction of women’s groups facilitate safety by exposing employees to other women in the organization who have been successful in advancing their careers. For example, in many male-dominated industries such as nuclear power, women’s groups (i.e., Women in Nuclear Global) provide opportunities for female leaders to support one another and share career strategies. Organizations can open a chapter of a group available in their industry or create a customized program for their employees. What is critical for women (and men) to understand is that they do not need to be a perfect fit on paper to be successful in a role, and to encourage them to take risks that will help them pursue their ambitions. Once in stretch roles, robust onboarding and expectation setting will help set the employees up for success.


In sum, advancing the careers of high-potential employees requires the efforts of both the individual and the organization. From a panel discussion on facilitating women’s career advancement emerged a number of suggestions that both men and women can leverage for their advancement. Our panelists suggest identifying advocates, demonstrating strategic thinking, and taking career risks as ways to get that promotion. Organizations can create opportunities for employees to take initiative around these three areas or take a more hands-on approach and create more formalized initiatives. Employees are encouraged to be deliberate. Identify sponsors and those who can advocate on their behalf, be explicit about what you hope to gain and what you can offer, and share your career plan. Look for opportunities to strategize and offer a strategic point of view. Take risk through stretch opportunities and ask for the support you require to be successful.

What are your thoughts? What successful strategies have you used to advance your own career? What programs or policies has your organization offered to support you? How can we better support talented individuals in progressing? Comment below.

Please reach out to hear more about how Vantage can help your organization create paths for your high potential talent to advance.