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Promoting Gender Diversity in Leadership

It is a known fact that women are largely underrepresented in all levels of the organization, especially when it comes to leadership roles. Although companies are making huge strides toward equality. There’s still a gender gap.

While women make around 40% of the overall S&P 500 labor force, only 36% of them are first or mid-level managers and those numbers decrease as management level goes up. On the top of that, HBR study predicts it will take more than 30 years to achieve global gender parity if the global trend continues at its current rate.

The above numbers show a tough reality for women in the corporate world, but there is hope, if we act! But how?

This article will present some ideas on how to kick-off, develop and maintain efforts to tighten the gender gap and ensure we have a steady growth in the number of women taking-on leadership positions.

Build the Case

The first important step is to get leadership buy-in on investing in initiatives to foster female leaders. The message is that this is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also smart for the business.

A study shows that companies that had three or more women on the board generated a Return on Equity of 3% higher for those without. Another analysis of 21,980 firms from 91 countries reveals that the presence of women in corporate leadership positions improves firm performance. In addition, a recent HBS research shows that women score higher than men in most leadership skills according to a 360-degree review analysis.

When it comes to dealing with crisis, such as the global pandemic, a subsequent research, published on CNN business found that women tend to adopt a more relational approach to leadership, which is more effective in a crisis compared to the more traditional command-and-control style of leadership typically adopted by men.

However, presenting dry research statistics is not enough. In order to build a successful business case, it is crucial to have a strong business acumen and know exactly the specificities of your business and organization. Factors, like role descriptions, number of hours employees can commit to the program, development paths, budget, strategic objectives of your organization, etc. — all must be taken into consideration in order to move forward.

Reviewing and presenting meaningful company data

In order to set a baseline, review the current HR data in your company. Apart from looking at the proportion of women in each level of the organization, assess recent engagement surveys and performance figures. Presenting the state-of-affairs will help set targets, and build your case for investing in programs to foster women leaders.

Build a Robust tactical Program

Check-the-box training is not going to make a difference, It needs to be a systemic sustainable approach. Here are five tactics companies can apply, separately or in combination, when building programs to address the leadership gender gap.

1. Networking opportunities

A McKinsey study found that 50% of a company’s intellectual capital is a “relational asset” i.e. the relationships between the employees. Leaders with the right kinds of networks are likely to be high performers. Creating opportunities for networking and knowledge sharing is imperative for leaders. Those interactions can take place in groups through your internal social media/ communication/ messaging tool as well as during events like fireside chats with subject matter experts, group workshops and gatherings.

2. Mentoring programs

Forget the classic mentoring of heavy regular meetings which end up being unpleasant and overwhelming. Mentoring can take place on the regular cadence as well as, ad-hoc (based on needs). Meetings can run online, through a learning experience platform or, offline. There can be a one-to-many approach where not only a mentor can have several mentees but also the other way around. This will enable more fluid interactions which will be based on the need of certain problems to be solved at a certain time.2

3. Coaching

Investing in the coaching program can also be very beneficial to help anyone to get to their professional objectives. Coaching programs can be developed in-house or sourced externally, depending on the company’s objectives, availability of resources, timeline and budget.

Coaching is defined as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential (International Coach Federation)

If you’re a business leader, especially in tech, who wants to improve gender diversity across your organization, consider investing in women coaching programs, or offering training to managers to help them learn to coach high-potential women. You might find that the costs of losing your female employees far outweigh the costs of coaching them. If you have people in the organization who have been trained in coaching skills, it will be easier, faster and cheaper to develop the right type of coaching programs.

4. Provide opportunities to boost confidence levels As coach, I frequently hear women expressing that they don’t feel they deserve their job and are “imposters” who could be found out at any moment. Imposter syndrome can have a negative impact on work. Research showed that 28% of working women feel like the imposter syndrome stopped them speaking in meetings and proposing new ideas. Of course, men are not exempt from doubting themselves — but they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do. Another study shows that women tend to judge their performance as worse than they objectively are while men judge their own as better. When it comes to new work opportunities, HBS research also found that men apply for a job or promotion when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. What doomed them was not their actual ability, but rather the decision not to try.

That’s why companies must create opportunities to help boost that confidence level, through education (e.g. Personal Branding workshops), coaching or mentoring.

5. Promote an Inclusive culture

If significant attention and resources are dedicated to implementing Diversity and Inclusion programs in each step of the employee journey, from recruiting, retaining to developing women leaders, we will start seeing more women in leadership positions.

In other words, an organization that genuinely cares about their women employees will keep their women and make sure they grow within the firm.

Moreover, companies that have active policies in place that ensure equal rights for women and have taken active steps to redress that imbalance are most successful. As we observe companies allowing flextime, work from home and virtual workplaces become the new norm, I believe, we’ll see more balance in the numbers of men and women at the leadership table.

Manage Change to Foster an Enabling Environment

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to developing women leaders in an organization. But one important success factor of those types of programs is that it is as top-down as much as it is bottoms-up.

To ensure success of those programs we must get support from all levels of the organization, not just the executive leadership. A workplace culture of equality is a powerful multiplier of innovation and growth according to a recent Accenture Study. It also found that in companies where the factors that drive a culture of equality are most common, an individual’s willingness and ability to innovate is nearly five times higher than in companies where the factors are least common.

What do women like Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, and Meg Whitman have in common, beside being successful self-made women?

They’re all humble but confident, wise but not afraid to share vulnerability, they have elevated levels of emotional intelligence. When they talk about their journey, they are not afraid to speak in terms of failure and learning opportunities. If we foster an environment which allows women to acquire and successfully demonstrate those skills on a continuous basis, I believe, it will be a key to success in minimizing the gender gap.

Think Strategically

Finally, all the initiatives and programs aiming to foster women leaders should be approached strategically.

Once you generate buy-in and excitement, you need to plan for budget, timeline, milestones and deployment, as any other strategic initiative which requires a project-based approach. Moreover, set target performance indicators to evaluate the success of your initiatives. Those metrics can vary from satisfaction about the overall program (NPS score), to actual business performance indicators, such as productivity, innovation and ROI. A clear thought through strategic plan will ensure demonstrating progress and success. Fostering women leaders initiatives will never be fully done. There will always be things to improve, maintain, sustain and uplift it. Although the work is continuous it is very rewarding throughout the way.

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