Breaking the 'glass basement' - How to identify & train junior women to become future leaders

In 2012, when I founded my startup, CORE Diagnostics, I thought the most important work I was going to do was to disrupt the way advanced diagnostics was delivered in India and other countries. That we would improve access and fundamentally change how innovative the industry could be. That we would transform the culture of how work was done and bring the critical value of transparency to the otherwise hierarchical and slow-to-change system.

While we did do a lot of those things over the last decade, they were far from being the most groundbreaking part of our journey. When I sleep at night I know that it was the things that can’t be measured in metrics and indicators that were the real work.

Breaking the glass basement is just one such example.

For women, and for that matter, any group of people that have been traditionally marginalized, there is a lot of conversation and research that has happened on the ‘glass ceiling’. While I won’t take away from that problem, the real issue starts at an entirely different point and until we address the root cause, we will continue to shoot in the dark.

I wish we could go further and disrupt education and parenting, which some would argue (correctly) are the real root cause. But, I am limiting the scope of this article to what organizations can do to keep it most relevant to you, my dear reader.

A 2020 study by McKinsey found that companies with diverse executive teams were more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median. And this is not just a correlation; the study found a causal relationship between gender diversity in leadership and financial performance.

For women, and for that matter, any group of people that have been traditionally marginalized, there is a lot of conversation and research that has happened on the ‘glass ceiling’.

What thenis the problem statement?

The problem is NOT the usual glass-ceiling (where women reached some “high enough level” - like mid-level or even near-senior level management - and then got stuck).

Rather, the problem is that they never get noticed even when they are in their early, junior roles. They never “break out of the basement”.

Why does this happen?

This happens because people who have to notice them, identify LEADERSHIP talent in them (i.e., their immediate bosses, who do their appraisals), etc. are quite incompetent themselves (they may be competent technically, but they are incompetent in identifying and developing talent). Specifically:

1. Either they have not been recruited well for their roles (they got promoted “just because they were technically good”, and not because they have some innate talent for being a leader themselves) OR

2. They might have some innate talent for identifying leaders but they have not been trained for this job. OR

3. They pass the (a) and (b) filters, but they are too insecure in their own role
Net net: A-grade leaders hire/develop A-grade leaders. B-grade leaders hire/develop C-grade leaders. The leaders who have the responsibility of observing and developing young women are mostly B-grade leaders themselves. THAT’s the ROOT CAUSE of the problem.

How do we fix it?

Younger women at work must be “assigned” to VERY senior-level leaders - men and women during the first year of their jobs. (This can be either direct reporting or in a mentor/coach role while reporting to someone else). The presumption is that the very senior leaders are A-grade themselves, and have the competence to identify and develop women leaders.

Once the early identification and some initial development have been done, these women should be “put back in the system” and let them compete on their own merit.

We ran this experiment at CORE. The most remarkable example was of a junior doctor that we hired straight from her residency. Today, she heads the entire pathology team and has revolutionized many aspects of how pathology services are provided by the organization. Even more, she has changed the culture of healthcare. Junior technicians have the same voice and leverage as leadership, anyone can share their mistakes without worrying about consequence and new ideas are fostered and move freely across the organization.

We were only able to pull it off because she was identified right at the start for her potential leadership abilities. Her first interview was with me and members of the leadership team. We could tell right there that she had a special spark and we took the time to mentor her and help bring out her innate capability.

Not surprisingly, the most skeptical person was the female doctor’s father - an accomplished doctor himself. When she called to tell him that she was being promoted to head the entire technical team, he was convinced she was lying.

While we laughed it off then, this is just another clear example that women's own lack of confidence in themselves gets in the way and it is socially conditioned, very often by their family.

"The companies with diverse executive teams were more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median."

In a very different way, I can think of at least a few female doctors who took a chance the first time I walked into their office (I was a naive 23 year old with zero domain expertise). Unlike a lot of their male counterparts (and quite a few female ones too), they acknowledged my presence, took the time to truly listen to what I was trying to build, gave me the space to contribute to their practice and even promoted my work to others.

As they say, it takes a village - to raise a child. In my case, my first child was my startup, and the village included a lot of these women that gave us our first shot. And just like that, it also takes a village - to raise a leader. And I am convinced that women are great at both these tasks.

Is this unfair to the men who are their peers?

Absolutely. At a “micro” level, it is unfair. But at a “macro” level, if we want to correct for this – so that enough women leaders reach leadership roles, this kind of a (radical? No) measure MUST be taken.