Publication | ThinkSet

Prioritizing Diversity and Promoting Women’s Leadership

January 30, 2020

Men and women leaders all have a role to play to make gender diversity a priority and promote more women to top levels of organizations. 

A former senior leader at Citigroup, Sallie Krawcheck has a theory about what led to the global financial crisis and why it hit the economy so hard.

“Though there were many factors, one thing I am convinced of having been at the front row is that one of the causes was groupthink,” she said. “Too many men from similar backgrounds were the decision makers in the boardroom.”

Krawcheck, now CEO of fintech startup Ellevest, is on a mission to close the gender gap in the senior leadership ranks of corporate America. Addressing that persistent problem was the focus of BRG’s inaugural Women’s Leadership Conference, held in Naples, Florida, in November 2019. Krawcheck and hundreds of female C-suite leaders from leading organizations discussed, learned and exchanged ideas for how to advance more women to the top of their professions.

Mary Karen Wills, a managing director in BRG’s Washington, DC, office, was one of the event’s organizers. With over 30 years of experience providing consulting and financial advisory services to organizations from middle market to the Fortune 100 and international NGOs, Wills leads BRG’s Government Contracting practice. We asked for her takeaways from the WLC and what she learned about addressing the gender gap in corporate America.

What made you optimistic after the first Women’s Leadership Conference?

I left with a lot of reasons for optimism. It was fulfilling to see what started as a simple idea five years earlier grow into a successfully executed event that our speakers and attendees really enjoyed. I also felt like many of the themes and suggestions from the speakers were already in practice at BRG, so affirmation on that point was encouraging about our own organization.

I was also glad that we focused on the challenges many women still face. Too often, women experience stalled careers without understanding what’s preventing them from rising through the ranks. The conference attendees discussed the persistent general lack of awareness when it comes to noticing diversity issues, how to recognize blind spots in ourselves and how to help others overcome theirs. We, as women, must talk about these issues, and doing so in a forum like the WLC means we can return to our jobs armed with actionable suggestions for our company leaders.

What ideas did attendees walk away with that they could implement? 

We talked a lot about exchanging feedback and initiating constructive conversations. When coaching someone, how can you address areas for improvement that lift people up instead of shutting them down? We also discussed mentoring programs and different approaches to mentoring. And we talked about what we can learn from successful internal women’s leadership initiatives.

But the conference wasn’t just about speakers and sessions. A big part of it was about creating an intimate atmosphere where C-suite women could develop and strengthen personal relationships with each other. And the relationships we developed also stay with us when we return to the office. One recent piece of research concluded that personal relationships are a critical factor for women’s professional success. Golf and hot yoga can be just as valuable as a keynote session.

How do men fit in? What would they have heard that could have helped them create more gender balance in their workplaces?

The intent of the WLC was to create an open atmosphere for honest conversation and brainstorming regarding balancing gender diversity. Men would have heard they can start to realize some unconscious bias that often leads to the lack of diversity within companies. Men, like all people, unintentionally recruit and promote those most similar to themselves. Combined with the simple truth that senior leadership is dominated by men, that reinforces the status quo and perpetuates some portion of the diversity problem.

That said, when we raise awareness among all leaders, both men and women, about these issues, we must do so without judgment and blame—and with a lot of empathy. We should assume our colleagues want to do the right thing and help them focus on what they can do better. Energy is wasted in attempts to cast blame for past actions.

What are some of the most important things successful female leaders can do to support junior colleagues?

I’ve always viewed it as my responsibility to pull up other women behind me. I take it very seriously. It’s a part of my “stakeholder mentality,” and it’s what I try to instill in everyone around me with whom I work. For me, it’s really about a commitment to develop junior staff and bring them up to a more senior level. Training, mentoring, education and programming are such a big part of continuously developing skill sets.

The most important thing is adopting a “giver” mindset. It’s incredibly important for leaders to train and develop the staff they manage, which starts with things like bringing junior team members to important meetings. But it’s also key to give them the chance to take on active roles and opportunities to speak up. Beyond the benefits for the junior staffers, this allows leaders to demonstrate their abilities to mentor and train effectively.

Since you first began your career, what have been some positive changes for women in the workplace?

When I started, you were expected to adopt a rigid corporate attitude; you had to dress a certain way, adopt certain communication styles and toe the company line. There wasn’t much room for individual style, and for women, this essentially meant we had to reflect and emulate the same attitudes and behaviors as men, except in a skirt—which was part of the required dress code.

There is now more latitude to develop an original, authentic style and still be considered successful alongside the top leaders at the highest echelons. You can be different—a woman, or LGBTQ or another minority—and earn the same amount of respect by being yourself.

Why does the gender gap persist—and what about it doesn’t get discussed enough?

I don’t believe most people start out with the intention to be overtly discriminatory, hence the existence of what I call unconscious bias that inhibits diversity. To improve the situation, we need a few things to happen.

First, established leaders must grow curious and even introspective about where and how they can develop their awareness on diversity issues. Female leaders simultaneously should be prepared to educate without blame. We also must get smarter about responding to some of the differences between men and women in the workplace and not penalize women simply for being a little different than men. For example, women tend to chronically underestimate their performance. They’re harder on themselves. When this is applied to performance management, the results can be damaging.

I had my own “a-ha moment” on this front when I was conducting reviews. In some cases, I had to go back to women and tell them they had sold themselves short and needed to revise their own assessments to be more in line with the self-assessments of their male counterparts. Unless someone steps in, this tendency of women to undervalue themselves can contribute to fewer promotions.

My own experience drives home the idea that we all have a role to play in becoming more aware of the factors that are leaving too many women stalled in the middle of their careers rather than progressing to the top levels of leadership.

Two-thirds of our 2019 WLC attendees have already registered for 2020’s event, so we know that providing this convening opportunity for women leaders really struck a chord. Events like this provide a critical opportunity for senior women in leadership to examine these issues, learn from one another and continue working toward gender parity in boardrooms—and the better business outcomes that come with it.

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Mary Karen Wills

Managing Director

Washington, DC


BRG is committed to embracing a culture of diversity in all of our offices.