Faculty Spotlight

Fixing the "Broken Rung" on the Career Ladder with Professor Špela Trefalt

Headshot of Spela Trefalt

Last year, Professor Špela Trefalt received the Diana K. Trust Professorship in Leadership Development, an Endowed Chair at Simmons. As part of her endowment, Trefalt is developing “Coach Approach to Leadership,” a leadership course for Honors students in collaboration with Diane Grossman, Mockler Chaired Professor in Women’s and Gender studies.

We asked Professor Trefalt about the benefits of coaching versus mentoring, and her research into work-life balance and career advancement of working women.

Can you tell us about the “coach approach” to leadership?

In short, it's asking people questions rather than telling them what to do. Coaching is an essential leadership behavior. It's the work of helping people grow and fully develop and use their potential. We need to believe in people's abilities to solve their own problems, to find solutions that are better than what we could come up with.

Instead, what often seems like a more efficient approach is to give advice, to "mentor" people we lead. In the short run, giving advice may be efficient but in the long run, coaching wins out by miles. The coach approach to leadership is simple, but it is not easy: it requires skills and humility.

What is the benefit of peer coaching?

Not everyone has access to a good professional coach. Many bosses are not skilled coaches and professional coaches can be expensive. But with proper skills — especially deep listening and asking powerful questions, peers can be excellent coaches. My goal is to help Simmons students develop coaching skills so that they can coach each other and their colleagues in their future workplaces.

Coaches challenge assumptions, encourage experimentation, provide accountability, and support faster learning and development. Imagine having all that while you're going through your undergraduate studies — and practicing that with others. It can be a truly powerful experience.

Can you tell us more about your research and where you hope it will lead?

I'm currently examining how coaching can help fix the gender disparity in leadership. Gender equality in leadership proves elusive. Only 21% of C-suite executives are women. The McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2019 study identified a main obstacle to gender equality in the workplace — it's not the glass ceiling, which prevents women from reaching senior leadership positions, but the career ladder’s “broken rung,” which prevents women from stepping into the first level of management. Women get promoted at this first level at significantly lower rates than men: only 72 for every 100 men. While hiring and promotion rates improve for women at senior levels, the initial discrepancy can never be overcome.

This first promotion to management typically happens around the age of 30, the same age at which a typical highly-educated American woman becomes a mother. I believe the two are related. As working women are becoming mothers, they face explicit and implicit biases and stereotypes in the workplace, according to research.

Women may also anticipate the challenges and obstacles of combining a career in a workplace that expects ideal workers — people always available for work, and who put work above all else — and the now normative “intensive parenting,” which requires full attention and availability of parents, particularly mothers, for their children. Facing this double bind, mothers may decide to pull back in their careers or the workplace may push them out of career progression by imposing penalties or preventing them from arranging their work in family-friendly ways.

Increasingly, women and their employers are realizing that the transition to working motherhood can be greatly facilitated by coaching. Employers are beginning to engage coaches to work with women who are becoming mothers, and sometimes with their managers, during pregnancy, maternity leave, and upon their return to work.

Some women also engage coaches directly for this work. With my collaborator, Angela Passarelli, Assistant Professor of Management at the College of Charleston, SC, I am studying what these coaches do and how they help women. We are finding that women who work with "transition to motherhood" coaches often find creative ways to stay engaged in their careers in a manner that honors their values.

Angela and I hope to identify what type of coaching and other interventions help women combine career and motherhood in fulfilling and meaningful ways. In addition, fathers need the same kind of support and managers need to be trained and coached as well.

How does this leadership research dovetail with your research on work-life balance?

I've always studied work-life balance of professionals regardless of gender and parental status. I come from a perspective that if single people don't have work-life balance, they'll never have time to start families or experience the richness of life in other ways. And I've always been interested in those people who make it work against the odds — high-powered professionals who have dinner with their families daily, or who run marathons, or who play in an orchestra. 

That said, mothers face unique challenges, with high expectations on both fronts. Women sometimes leave the workforce because of these expectations, as well as the high cost of childcare in the U.S. and the brief maternity leave. But many do so without having all the information to make an informed decision. They don't know what they can negotiate at work and at home, and are not fully aware of the long-term consequences of their decisions. Sometimes they leave with a plan to return in a few years, only to find that returning is much harder than they thought. Some researchers found that women who stayed at home to take care of kids are less likely to be hired than those who were unemployed for a comparable length of time. 

I'm looking at how women, with the help of coaching, find creative solutions to combine work and motherhood in fulfilling and rewarding ways.

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