As women in business we are often reminded of the gender gap at senior levels, whether this is through a glance at the latest figures regarding comparative percentages of women in senior management and Board positions, an analysis of the gender pay gap, or simply in our day to day workplaces – particularly in the industries where I work!
There are thousands of reports and studies as to why gender gaps still exist, and thousands of training and professional development programs, advocacy groups, women’s mentoring and leadership networks, and educational tools designed to enable us to close this gap. In fact closing the gender gap has become an industry in itself.
It was not until I recently had a ‘light bulb’ moment when watching Susan Colantuano’s Ted Talk ‘The career advice you probably didn’t get’, that I realised many of the existing approaches to helping us smash this metaphorical glass ceiling really do not address the whole, or even most of the picture. In Susan’s talk she speaks about the ‘missing 33 per cent’ in the career advice given to women aiming to move from middle to senior management. She makes the case that much of the advice we are given is about becoming more assertive, building confidence, developing our own brand, learning how to work well with and get the best out of / lead others, improving our self-promotion, getting a mentor, and enhancing our networks – all of which are important and all of which many women already do very well.
So what is missing from this picture and why does the gap at senior levels still remain? The fundamental piece or ’33 per cent,’ is what Susan calls business, strategic and financial acumen.
At BRS a large part of the work we do with individuals and organisations is focused on building this business, strategic and financial acumen – what we generally refer to as commercial acumen. What we have found is that there are gaps in commercial acumen across the board – whether it is men or women, or across different sectors. What we also find unquestionably, is a very strong correlation between high commercial acumen and high-performing individuals, teams and organisations. What is interesting is that commercial acumen does not appear to be taught or even really discussed in most formal educational programs (e.g. university courses) or most organisational-wide career development programs.
Why then is focusing on building our commercial acumen so important for women in particular? Two of the reasons given by Susan are that (a) men are more likely to get pushed into positions that require them to develop their commercial acumen and (b) the nature of mentoring and sponsorship provided to men is often more commercially focused. She uses an example of the mentoring approach taken by a senior executive to a male and female protégé; “I helped the woman build confidence, I helped the man learn the business, and I didn’t realise that I was treating them any differently”.
While these are just examples and of course there are many reasons as to why the gap still exists, it is fundamental for women to challenge ourselves and others to focus on building commercial acumen. If not the lack of awareness and exposure is likely to continue creating the classic (and infamous) Donald Rumsfeld problem of “unknown, unknowns”, ensuring that commercial acumen remains the elusive missing piece in closing the gender gap.