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Navigating the Leadership Labyrinth

Author: Dr. Susan Duvall-Dickson
May, 2016 Issue
Peter Northouse, who writes on leadership theory and practice, suggests that, what was once known as “the glass ceiling” is actually a labyrinth. In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg offers a similar analogy, describing the journey women take into leadership as a “jungle gym.” These new metaphors seem more accurate, suggesting that it’s not a straight shot to the top but, rather, an adventure filled with challenges and opportunities.
Women represent 51 percent of the U.S. population, yet the percentage of women in politics and places of power pales in comparison. I often have to scratch my head and wonder, how it can be that women aren’t expected to reach parity with men in leadership for another 500 years. Part of this may be because we, as a society, still view a woman leader as an anomaly. But there must be more to it than that.
In the past, there was a pipeline problem. Women didn’t have the experience or the education, and didn’t typically pursue careers in the male-dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Even today, young girls’ aspirations to pursue careers in these fields are we often discouraged or minimized. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact there aren’t many female role models in these arenas. Marie Wilson of the Whitehouse Project states, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” On the other hand, someone has to break ground and lead the way.
Early in my career, the conferences I attended had very few women participants. Today, while men still outnumber women, the balance between the genders is growing every year, which leads me to believe we’re making progress through the labyrinth.
In my role as an adjunct professor of leadership at Dominican University of California, I see first-hand confirmation of the statistics that indicate women are pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in greater numbers than men. The great news is that the next generation of women—and men—in my classes seem to view the idea of having a woman boss or women in leadership as being the norm in their futures.
I find this exciting, because there’s no doubt women must have the support of men if we’re to break down barriers that might exist in real world leadership scenarios. In addition, businesses are realizing there’s something to be said for having diversity of thought and gender at the table. Not only do women make up 51 percent of the population, but they also hold 85 percent of the purchasing power in the United States. Women’s voices will be critical to the success of all companies in the future.
Another twist in the labyrinth is that women have traditionally had less employment continuity than men, as many stopped working to take on much of the responsibility of child rearing. If one really thinks about it, motherhood should probably be included on one’s résumé, as it certainly contributes to strength of character. In reality, however, it fuels a gap that often makes it more difficult for women to achieve leadership positions. There’s evidence that the next generation of men are more willing than their predecessors to step into a co-parenting role, which should help to reduce ill-founded perceptions and let women maneuver this challenge more effectively in the future.
In the documentary “MissRepresentation,”it was suggested that men vote for men and women vote for men—even among the younger generation. The reason for this is unclear, but it likely stems, in part, from the stereotypical perception that men are more intelligent, stable or better suited for a leadership role.
It’s critical for women to support other women and celebrate their successes. It’s wonderful to see organizations like the Girl Scouts of America reinvent themselves as a support for girls and young women in leadership. I’m honored to have been a part of the Junior League, a powerful national and international women’s organization that addresses many of the issues facing women today. As adjunct professor and part of the Women Leadership and Philanthropy Council at Dominican, and as COO of Private Ocean Wealth Management, I look at the next generation of women and see incredible leadership qualities—qualities that will absolutely let them one day make their way to the very top of the jungle gym.

Dr. Susan Duvall-Dickson is a partner and chief operating officer at Private Ocean Wealth Management. In addition to her work with Private Ocean, she’s an adjunct professor at Dominican University of California and currently serves as mentor and judge for a financial service industry next generation leadership program. She holds an Ed.D. in organization and leadership from the University of San Francisco, an MBA in strategic leadership and a BA in human resource management from Dominican University of California. Contact her at



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