Julie Coffman, Partner at Bain & Company, recently published Everyday moments of truth: Frontline managers are key to women’s career aspirations, researching why more women aren’t in top management positions. Although women and men enter the workforce with similar levels of aspiration and confidence, her study finds that, over time, women’s aspirations drop by more than 60% and confidence falls by half, whereas men’s aspirations and confidence levels stay about the same. Julie offers advice to mitigate this troubling trend in a conversation with Meaghan Casey, MBA ’15 and Wharton Women in Business (WWIB) Co-President.
MEAGHAN CASEY, INTERVIEWER: You have a full time client-facing job as a Partner at Bain. Why does this research on gender parity matter to you?
JULIE COFFMAN, PARTNER AT BAIN: As I grew in my career and had opportunities to work with clients and people at Bain, who are all great leaders, I realized that the biggest impact that I had and that gave me the biggest high, if you would, was the ability to work with, coach, develop and help people. Whether it was to help clients make great decisions that could help move their organization forward or internal to Bain – anything I could do to develop the next generation. I saw the gap between the number of women that we started with at Bain, versus the smaller number of women we had on our leadership team, and the smaller number of women I saw in senior roles across other organizations. I felt there was an opportunity to learn more about what was driving that gap. I felt we should try to do some things differently to change our overall management approaches in such a way to help internally at Bain but also to share stories about what worked for those of us women who had reached senior positions. It became something I am quite passionate about and a way for us all to share, learn and grow to impact individuals’ development. This way [together], you can have a much bigger impact than you can on your own.
CASEY: What impact do you hope that this article will have?
COFFMAN: On the first level, it’s to keep the dialogue [on gender parity] going and spread the dialogue further. I’d like nothing more than for enough people, men and women, to pick up the piece and have a discussion about “How do we think this plays out in our organization? What’s happening to men and women as they move up the ranks in our organization?”. The number one impact is just upping the dialogue. Second, there are tips and tricks in the article that people can bring into their own day-to-day lives or organizations. If you’re a manager, you could start thinking more about, “What am I doing today to really nurture the aspirations and confidence of the people who work with me? Are there things I can do in my day to day routine or check-in discussions that could be more encouraging?” That would be fantastic. And for people who are being managed, they could develop some self-awareness about, “How do I feel about where I am going? Have I actually given my boss an opportunity to shape that for me, support and help me? Have I been proactive to try and change that dialogue?” I think that would be great. Lastly, organizations should take a step back and think about, “Who are we celebrating? Who are our heroes and what image do they set forth for our broader organization and is it one we believe in cultivating and want our people to aspire towards – or do we need to paint a more varied and balanced picture of the behaviors and accomplishments that we celebrate?”
CASEY: What does it look like when a company celebrates a wide variety of leader types, behaviors and accomplishments well?
COFFMAN: At Bain & Company we expect our managers to do in-depth professional development support, so it’s not just a performance review but periodically throughout the project each member of the team discusses where they are doing well and where they can improve and also what other goals and roles they have in mind. We also try to do a lot of celebration of a variety of accomplishments. At our office level we do monthly team surveys about a variety of things. One key topic is about how big of an a impact the team believes we are having on our clients. And then also, how satisfied are you [the internal team] with the overall case experience? For those projects that get high, high on both – imagine in a two by two – we call it the upper right quadrant. We do “tales from the upper right”, where managers and their teams will describe what they’ve done on their teams to make it such a high impact team for their client and such a meaningful experience for their team internally.. I do think that there are other organizations that give a lot of shout outs or recognition to folks who are deemed to be good coaches and great mentors through awards, rewards or recognition. Again at Bain we did something called the Rockstar Award at our regional level to recognize individuals who have perfect upward feedback scores in terms of all of their direct reports being very happy to work with them again.. There are a lot of ways you can integrate what you actively celebrate into your culture. Also it matters how you bring this into the day-to-day reality in one-on-one interactions with people.
CASEY: Would you summarize your most recent article/research and what surprised you the most?
COFFMAN: In this particular piece we were looking at what actually changes women’s motivations, if anything, in going for top jobs. We were originally thinking about, well, women may make a decision to quote “opt out”, and what we saw instead was that women and men enter the workforce with similarly high level of aspirations for top jobs and confidence than they can get there. And in fact women were higher than men in our sample at the entry level. But then by the time you are at the middle of your career, somewhere north of 2 years of experience [post MBA], but not at senior level yet, for females, aspiration for the top jobs plummets as does confidence that you can get there. This is a much more dramatic drop for women than for men within a similar experience band. We wanted to understand why that was and that caught us off guard. The first thing was, gosh, is it all demographics? Is it because women are getting married and having kids? The answer is, well, no it’s not. The demographics of those who still aspire and those who do not, was essentially the same in terms of marital status and kids – so it’s not a statistically significant difference. So we probed deeper and tried to understand, what can be driving this? What we uncovered was that folks who no longer aspired felt very differently about whether or not their [personal/professional] style would be valued at their company, whether or not they fit into the stereotype of success, whether or not they believed there were role models there who they looked up to or if their supervisors were supportive. You could see huge differences in degrees of agreement with those statements. Those who agreed, aspired higher – 30 points on average – than those that did not. What seemed to be going one is that, especially for women, aspiration and confidence dropped so significantly because they were not seeing a path or role for themselves in senior levels of companies that they [women] thought was attractive enough or one they wanted. Nor were they [women] particularly supported by individuals to get there. So women said I am just not as interested as I thought I was [in reaching top management at this firm]. Though support and having resonance is important for men and women, it seems to be differentially important for women. There is a stronger impact and there seems to be less of an ability [as a woman] to see yourself as part of the team, and that has a more detrimental impact on women. It’s not that surprising on some level because there are so few women in leadership to begin with. To feel like top management is a place you really belong, you have to feel strongly about the other company values if you don’t resemble the composite of the current leaders who are there. And the gap is striking, and so that’s why I think that companies have work to do in the day- to-day interactions and in the way they manage their employees to help foster a much greater sense [among women that] I want to be here, I belong here, I can do this and the company is helping me succeed.
CASEY: Who was your target audience for this research and have you reached them?
COFFMAN: Our audience really for us originally was leaders in businesses and upper management. We’re interested in individual women and employees as well, of course. And certainly we have targets in mind that our research is and should be hard-hitting for our recruits. Our target audience for this piece is mid-level managers at organizations who manage people, so they can better nurture ambition and confidence.
CASEY: What advice do you have for MBA students about the behaviors they can cultivate now to help them become better leaders and managers?
COFFMAN: In order to become an effective leader and have a big impact on your organization, you have to have a very clear minded perspective on what your definition of success is, what’s important to you and the way in which you’re going bring that perspective, style and capability set to a broader group. So knowing that and having confidence in what you want to accomplish and how you are going to accomplish it is an important first step. The other thing is recognizing that, wow, it would be great if all managers out there who you worked for were perfect people managers and did all the right things to support you, nurture ambition and encourage a variety of styles. The truth is that there is not always going to be that perfect fit. You need to bring some level of being proactive and advocating for yourself and trying to seek out multiple people who can serve as different role models and can provide you with feedback and support. And you should find that in your colleagues as well and not just in your direct supervisors. The more we support each other and create a community that can be there for each other when things get challenging, that is the best way to make progress on this as well.
CASEY: Has Bain done anything differently in their day-to-day practices because of this research?
COFFMAN: We have increased our efforts with having one-on-one conversations and have been celebrating a broader set of role models, showing how people have been successful at Bain in a variety of different career paths to show that we value a broad array of leadership styles, experiences, and accomplishments. We are continually generating insights to deepen our understanding of times in individual’s careers where confidence or aspiration is weaning and what can one do to nurture it. Since we have a benefit of a long term relationship with our employees, how can we understand typical moments in a career where confidence or aspirations are lower and input interventions to try and do all we can to grow that person. And our efforts are paying off. Our employees have validated Bain’s commitment to women in the annual Vault survey, where we ranked #1 Diversity – Women in North America, and top rated in Europe and Asia. We’ve also been recognized as a 2014 Working Mother 100 Best Company – now seven consecutive years running. But we’re not stopping here. We will continue to push ourselves to new heights in our quest to remain the best place to work for all of our employees, day-in and day-out.