Learning to Advance Women in Leadership: An Interview with Kathleen Buse

Kay Peterson

Gender diversity is a driver for success, reports Turban, Wu and Zhang in Harvard Business Review.  If this is true, why are women under-represented in some STEM professions?  To answer this question, we consulted with Kathleen Buse, PhD, Director, Women’s Leadership Institute at ERC.  Kathleen has made it her business to research how organizations can recruit, retain, and advance women, especially in STEM professions.  As an engineer and leader, she uses her own experience to inform her research and practice.

Kathleen reports that, despite progress in many professions, women remain severely under-represented in leadership (e.g. women comprise 5% of S&P CEO’s) and in critical professions (e.g. women comprise 12% of professional engineers) and industries (e.g. women comprise 33% of the manufacturing workforce).  Businesses pay for this in both overall business results and increased recruiting costs. Under Kathleen’s direction, the Women’s Leadership Institute at ERC advocates for, and empowers women to achieve in these capacities, ones that have been described as difficult. Leveraging the latest research, the ERC provides professional and leadership development to help women understand the bias and barriers they face and what they can do to eliminate them. They also help leaders in organizations understand why they are falling short and how they can take action to increase gender diversity across roles. One key action is to develop a critical mass of women (greater than 30% of an organization or more than 3 people in a small group) so that their opinions are not minimized or their experiences undervalued.

Kathleen believes it is important to translate well-documented academic research into practical strategies that women use to overcome the barriers and to achieve their goals. For example, her research revealed how unconscious bias in organizational practices inadvertently lead to the promotion of male candidates over equally qualified or even better qualified female candidates. The ERC Women’s Leadership Institute program demonstrates that once women understand how the bias manifests in organizational practices, they are self-motivated to change these practices.  In addition, women who understand the bias and barriers help both men and women recognize and overcome bias in decision-making.

One of the outstanding characteristics of the women who participate in the leadership development programs at the Women’s Leadership Institute at ERC is that they are life-long learners. They increase their self-awareness and expand the choices they view as possible.  For instance, over 40% of the women who attended one leadership development program initiated promotions for themselves within one year.

Learning is essential to empower women to achieve in leadership positions and in non-traditional roles. Kathleen’s work shows that individual and organizations willing to learn are those that are mostly like to recruit, retain, and advance women—and to be more successful in the marketplace.

Listen to an interview with Kathleen Buse as she tells about her history, research, her learning style preferences, and ways she continues to learn.