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Survival Tactic: Recognize Your Female Talent, Part Two

The founders of Fine Line Consulting know why corporate America needs more women at the top. Here, they discuss the roadblocks to retaining and rewarding female talent — and prescribe solutions for vaulting those barriers.

Most companies recognize that corporate America needs to usher more women into its upper ranks. They just don’t understand why or how female executives serve their self-interest.

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Though women represent 46% of the U.S. workforce, they hold only about 6% of executive titles like CEO, chairwoman, and executive vice president. And only four women hold CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies, including Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard and Andrea Jung of Avon, both of whom were named to their positions last year. (Click here for more information from the 2000 Catalyst Census .)

So what’s the problem? For most corporations, the challenge lies in justifying a financial and strategic investment in recruiting and supporting female talent, and in overcoming the hurdles associated with retaining top women. But Ellen Snee and Jan Shubert think they’ve found a few key methods for clearing those hurdles.

As president and vice president of Fine Line Consulting, a Newton, Massachusetts-based firm dedicated to the advancement of female corporate leaders, Snee and Shubert watch firsthand as companies struggle with issues of female leadership. Since Snee founded the company in 1996, Fine Line consultants have worked with nearly 300 senior and middle-management women in Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies, such as Goodyear and Marriott International. Working individually with high-level women, Fine Line helps its clients promote their efforts, tackle work obstacles, and navigate internal politics. The consultants also organize seminars for high-potential women and advise upper-level male managers on attracting and retaining female talent.

Fast Company spoke with Snee, 50, and Shubert, 54, about the barriers to and the benefits of promoting women into top leadership roles. In Part One of this two-part story, they offer five important reasons why companies must recognize and promote female talent. In Part Two, Snee and Shubert identify several major problems faced by both women and their employers, and offer advice for solving those problems.

Part One: Five Reasons Why Your Company Should Care About Female Leaders

Part Two: How to Vault Four Common Barriers to Equality in the Upper Ranks

1. The corporation has a strategy for hiring and retaining women, but no one takes it seriously.

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“Many organizations create programs for women,” Snee says. “But by creating the program and writing the check, they often simply declare victory and move on.”

To ensure a true commitment to female leaders, companies should make the advancement of women an integrated part of their overall career-development strategy. For instance, if a company aims to provide women with formal mentors, Fine Line recommends that internal advocates write that goal into the annual business strategy.

Leaders should also actively pursue opinions and advice from female employees regarding processes for promotions and reviews. “We advise all companies to have a minimum of three women at the decision-making table,” Shubert says. “Individual women hold wildly diverse opinions and priorities, so it’s a huge mistake to designate one woman to be the spokesperson for an entire gender.”

2. Women lack sponsors who can speak up for them.

“When companies seek to hire new talent, managers and other decision makers typically reach out for people they know,” Snee says. “But women often haven’t figured out how to be known.”

When doling out promotions, Shubert explains, companies often consider three men and one woman for an open position. All of the candidates may be equally talented, but the woman stands alone and often doesn’t know anyone in the higher ranks who could speak on her behalf.

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Fine Line advises women to think strategically and seek inside sponsors who can act as advocates when promotions and talent reviews roll around.

“Women need someone who can say to them and a larger audience, ‘Good job, brilliant work, keep it up,’ ” Shubert says. “Women with extensive support systems are better positioned for recognition and advancement.”

3. Female colleagues don’t leverage their collective power.

“Because so few women inhabit the upper echelons of organizations, their voices are often drowned out,” Shubert says. In order to amplify female voices, corporations should organize events and seminars that allow women to focus on business strategies and career development. “During these events, women can gather with their colleagues in a way that supports them as people and as professionals,” Snee says.

If an employer fails to provide collaborative opportunities for its female employees, Fine Line encourages those women to organize their own events. By working together to solve specific business issues, Shubert says women can improve their working lives and add value to their organizations. Her only warning is that women-only gatherings can arouse suspicion. “The events must stick closely to business themes,” Shubert says. “If you want to start a social club for women, do it after hours.”

4. Upper executives don’t hear about women’s accomplishments.

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“Most of the women we work with are extremely effective leaders,” Snee says. “But they’re often not good at drawing attention to their achievements.” Women should not assume their peers and managers know about their accomplishments. Snee says women must make a conscious effort to name and claim the work they do. In a cutthroat corporate environment, women must not worry about sounding too boastful. To compete with male coworkers, they must worry only about taking credit where credit is due.

“If you end up in the elevator with the vice president or CEO, do you talk about the weather or do you talk about your recent successes?” Snee asks. “In the time it takes to go from the third floor to the fifth floor, you can gain recognition for your work.”

Read Part One of this story

Contact Jan Shubert (janelle_shubert@harvard.edu) and Ellen Snee (finelinees@aol.com) by email.

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