There’s a lot of focus on women in leadership these days. It seems like every week we see a new study, article or podcast on women’s advancement and the challenges they face. And we hear encouraging stories about women that have ascended to the CEO ranks at Fortune 500 companies like General Motors, IBM and Anthem. But despite all the attention and the one-off successes, the overall picture still looks bleak.
While women make up 44% of the S&P 500 labor force, only 26% of executive and senior level managers are women and only 4.8% of CEOs, according to Catalyst, Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies.
So what’s holding women back?
HNS’ women’s leadership programs help women overcome internal barriers by silencing their inner critic and owning the value they bring. But we recognize there are pervasive external factors affecting women’s advancement, which make the picture much more complicated. How do we address systemic issues like unconscious bias, unfair promotion practices, and male-dominated corporate cultures?
Here are our four top recommendations:
Step 1: Start at the executive level.
Those at the top need to embrace the value of diversity and actively promote initiatives that help women leaders advance. Only 42% of companies hold senior leaders accountable for making progress toward gender parity. Yet it’s hard to imagine a groundswell of change when leaders aren’t formally expected to drive it. The McKinsey/Lean In report recommends setting annual targets for promoting women and holding executives accountable for achieving them. If results are being tracked, managers are more likely to scrutinize their decisions and question their assumptions, leading to more women leaders getting a seat at the table.
Step 2: Women need senior level sponsors who see their potential, introduce them to key contacts and recommend them for opportunities.
Companies need to enable the key relationships that make a difference. Nine in ten women do not feel confident in asking for sponsors; and eight out of ten lack the confidence to seek mentors. And yet, we know that these relationships are key. Kelly Watson, KPMG Partner and Board Member, explains that “Relationships are the building blocks of anyone’s life or career, and making those connections has been the single most critical thing for my career advancement.”
We need to proactively connect high-potential women with senior leaders who can share lessons learned, help navigate politics and open doors. Networking opportunities that encourage employees to mingle, regardless of level, are also key. Our clients often ask us, “How can I build a relationship with someone I never interact with?”
Step 3: Foster an inclusive and respectful culture.
This starts with showing zero tolerance for sexual harassment as well as micro-aggressions (such as leaving women peers out of key meetings or making them feel unwelcome). And equally critical is to make the expectation clear that managers need to challenge biased behavior and language when they observe it at any level of the organization.
But fostering an inclusive environment requires going a step further. In the HBR article “Women, Find Your Voice” authors Heath, Flynn and Holt found that women feel unsupported and frustrated in many high-level meetings, often unable to get a word in edgewise and frequently interrupted. Having leaders at the table who regularly solicit the views of those less vocal is important.
We recently heard Indra Nooyi, former Chairman and CEO of Pepsi, talk about how she would regularly call men out who interrupted women in meetings. This has the double benefit of adding women’s voices to the conversation as well as giving men valuable feedback on unacceptable behavior.
Step 4: Build awareness of unconscious bias.
It’s critical to pay attention to whether women and men are evaluated differently. Are you categorizing strong, assertive behavior in a woman as abrasive, while that same behavior is viewed as leader-like in a man? Training in unconscious bias helps to build awareness of the thinking patterns that lead to discrimination. This awareness results in evaluations based more on merit and less on comfort level. A senior manager may lean towards a candidate who has a similar background to his, but when he learns to question his biases, he looks for more objective data to use in a hiring decision.
Research also suggests that mandating a diverse slate of candidates helps companies make better hiring and promotion decisions. Thinking about candidates in groups helped managers compare individuals by performance, while evaluating them individually led to gender-biased decisions.
Helping women develop the behaviors and skills that position them for leadership success is critical. Combining those development efforts with organizational initiatives provides the catalyst for real and lasting change, helping women to shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.