How close are you to meeting your target of more women in leadership?

d&i strategies gender diversity inclusive leadership Sep 21, 2021

Some time ago I was talking to an old friend who has recently retired from his role as Chief Operating Officer in a global organisation and the subject of gender parity at all levels of leadership came up. 

He shared how his company had invested millions in training over the years and yet the reality was that they hadn’t made a significant impact in the number of female directors and it was still a depressing less than 15%.

Naturally I was curious as to what the company had done specifically to enable “Caring and Career”, as this is one of the key enablers to ensure more women move into leadership. I shared how “invisible attrition” is one of the greatest barriers to advancing women and yet it is a very difficult KPI to measure.

Invisible attrition is the act of consciously opting out of promotion because of 2 key reasons:

  1. It feels impossible to have a career and a caring role, without overwhelm, guilt and failure.
  2. Women hold themselves back to apply for a role that they may not be at least 95% qualified to perform and/or because they do not want to work to the same terms as to how the role is advertised.

The second reason is easier to address. Effective coaching and leadership training, coupled with active sponsorship and championing from senior leaders in the organisation, has a significant positive influence on empowering women. I know this when I regularly read the feedback and updates from professionals who have followed our “Empower Your Future Leadership Programme”. Participants report that as a result of their coaching and training they:

  • dared to dream and stepped outside limiting beliefs, to explore and apply for leadership roles with confidence and conviction, even if the initial role seemed “bigger” than them.
  • initiated courageous conversations and negotiated for what they needed, both at home and at work, to advance in their career - this included negotiating for reducing hours or working compressed hours, even when roles are advertised at 100% and office based.
  • became more visible and increased their sphere of influence at work, marketing themselves so that they are seen and heard for the right things.

But what about 1st reason where women feel it is impossible to have a career and a caring role, without overwhelm, guilt and failure? How do you address this? Well, this is a much bigger obstacle and it directly correlates to your culture, policies and practices.

Firstly, you need to know why? Of course, you can hold focus groups/listening sessions or run surveys to ask your own female population. However, most of what you will learn is what we know already, through the many reports and white papers on this. From time to time I lead our working parent workshops as it’s my way of checking that these types of workshops are still needed! When we ask the Post Maternity groups, what they perceive as external barriers to leadership, the answers are often the same - irrelevant of industry sector.

  • It feels challenging enough managing current workload and family responsibilities, struggling with guilt at having to leave at sensible times, that increasing responsibility and time at work seems too much of a stretch.
  • There are no or very few role models, with an executive board of mostly white males.
  • Managers often make career limiting choices for females, be it as a result of benevolence bias or assumptions that it is not possible for women to have children and a career.
  • The few women who are leaders don’t have a family or they have stay-at-home partners/full time nannies.
  • No leadership roles are posted at less than 100% and in fact, most leaders seem to work 120% and many women who have family/ageing parents want to work a reduced week (this is no longer a female only need with the rising number of millennials and Gen X in the workforce).
  • Flexible working is a policy on the website but not actively leveraged by leaders, so that there is still a feeling of career suicide if one adopts flexible working.
  • Most networking and influencing is done in evenings or early mornings, when this is precious time with children.
  • Their partners work for organisations where there is an even greater bias to men and the secondary carer assuming a caring role, so all the mental and practical load of caring falls on the birthing female.

As you read these barriers, it quickly becomes clear why the approach to tackle this challenge needs to be holistic, where multiple strategies are required, all underpinned by a cultural change programme. If you asked me to choose the top 3 strategies to influence culture change and enable Caring and Career, what would I recommend?

Strategy 1: Get buy-in and sponsorship from the very top

When you talk to any organisation who is leading the way in nurturing a culture where employees are actively engaged, motivated and happy at work (reflected in data of high engagement, low attrition and gender parity at all levels of the organisation); they always say the secret to success is the commitment and drive of the C-suite and senior leadership team. We have seen and felt the pain of many D&I and HR leaders who are driven, passionate and determined about enabling caring and career... yet they often feel that they are pushing water up-hill when their programmes are rejected; unless they have that sponsorship from the top.

Ask yourself, how many of the senior management team talk about their caring responsibilities and openly adopt the policies they have authorised to enable employees to balance work and home life, in your company? Many of the daily habits and practices of senior leaders will be imitated by the managers who report to them, as it is a way of belonging and fitting in. It is this senior team that need to hold the genuine vision and desire for the culture they want to see, where caring and career is possible, for it to become a reality.

Strategy 2: Introduce Policies that make it easier to integrate work and life

More and more organisations are increasing parental leave, with much focus on paternity leave thankfully. Professionals in their late 20/early 30s change organisations if it allows them to be the parents they want to be - in return these carers feel a greater sense of loyalty and engagement. I have been working with Novartis in Switzerland since they announced their plan to increase their paternity leave to 14 weeks. Novartis appreciates that simply having a policy change is not enough and they have a global change management team working together, to maximise the uptake of the paternity leave by all their male associates (ie employees). This means looking at better equipping managers on their role in influencing the uptake of policies, recognising the significant role communications has to play, adapting to overcome country specific cultures which may be an obstacle, coaching support for the associates and defining KPIs to measure the success and ROI on anticipated benefits.

This need to make it easier to integrate work and life isn’t exclusive however to parents. All employees have a caring role - whether it’s self-care, caring for ageing parents, sick partners, pets ...the list goes on. A smart working policy, offering several flexible work options, is critical and needs to be adopted by the majority,  especially by leadership. This will take much “unlearning” by some leaders who define success by presenteeism and micro management, to be replaced by a leadership mindset of trust and empowering teams.

Strategy 3: Equip and educate your People Managers to successfully navigate life transitions and manage diverse needs of diverse teams

Policies in theory give you permission to adopt a different way of working, so that you can make choices to deliver results, in balance with integrating all the other life responsibilities we have.

What brings policy to life? Managers. Often managers will feel ill equipped to have the conversations that are required to successfully manage the diverse needs of teams, let alone manage the implementation of these diverse needs. When we educate managers for example on what to pay attention to, to proactively manage the transition to parenthood with team members, they often share that in the past they have said nothing at all, for fear of saying the wrong thing. This is amplified in Switzerland where we have such a rich melting pot of nationalities and cultures with a quarter of the population being foreigners.

Help your managers so that they can encourage the use of policies without becoming overwhelmed themselves. The danger is that managers who are still accountable for the results become more stressed managing teams who have a mix of flexible hours, locations and periods of leave.

Equally, reward and recognise the managers who are developing their teams, using less linear career paths and who see the often untapped talent of women in their late 40s/50s. I can’t tell you how many women I meet in this age bracket who complain that the current talent management process overlooks the fact that they have a great deal of both professional and life experience, with a complementary skill set that is often demanded in inclusive leadership.

Of course, this needs to start with the senior leadership teams actively championing and role modelling the application of policies and giving a very loud message that employees’ lives are equally important and need to be respected. Back to Strategy 1. 

In summary, a holistic approach is required to truly succeed in advancing women and creating an empowering inclusive culture, where all employees thrive, integrating their personal and professional approach. There are additional enablers of course which I or co-founder Natalie Wilkins are happy to share on a call/over a coffee, if it helps you accelerate your progress and the impact we want to have on gender parity and enabling Caring and Career.

If you would like to take immediate action to build your pipeline and sponsor your high potential females to join an Empower Your Future programme, then let us know. The next Thriving Talent cross company cohort to follow the 18-week leadership development programme, with up to 12 high potential employees from different companies and industries starts on 8 October 2020. If you have more than 12 women, then a company tailored programme may be best. Either way, please do contact us at [email protected].

At Thriving Talent, we have a target to empower 1 million parents by close of 2020, so help us to meet our target to help you meet yours!

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