Reducing the gender gap at leadership level: what ACTUALLY works

At a recent conference with a large number of HR Directors, the keynote speaker asked the audience comprising 183 HR Directors “how many of you have invested in unconscious bias training?”. One hundred and eighty-three hands went straight up in the air. They were then asked “how many of you have seen benefit from your investment?”. One hundred and eighty-two hands went straight down again – one brave HR Director kept his hand in the air, albeit rather limply.

The ongoing investment in unconscious bias training as the way to address the gender gap frustrates my colleagues and me, for two reasons:

  • We are driven by a fundamental belief that the world will be a better place when 50% of the most important decisions for the planet are made by women. Unconscious bias training is making nary a dent in this vision becoming a reality. The fact that organisations invest close to $US10billion annually in diversity training with next to no return on investment - and next to no research confirming that the training actually meets key organisational objectives around diversity and inclusion – only increases our determination to make a difference.
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  • We have worked with the likes of Google, PayPal, Nissan and Atlassian to increase the percentage of women at leadership level. Over the years we have practised and researched and further honed our craft, to the point where 52% of the women we work with receive a promotion within 6 months, 100% of the women we work with say their commitment and ability to contribute back to the organisation have risen significantly, and our clients have had to lift their 5-year women in leadership targets after working with us for nine months. When it comes to getting more women into leadership roles, we know what works - and what doesn’t.

Let’s talk first about what doesn’t work when it comes to lifting the representation of women at leadership level:

1.      Unconscious bias training. In our experience, HR Directors look back on this as a waste of their precious budget … but as a necessary tick-the-box exercise to make stakeholders (sometimes including the CEO and Board) happy. What we know is that unconscious bias tends to reinforce stereotypes, heighten bias, increase complacency and can lead to white men feeling excluded.

2.      Refusing to set targets. We all know that ‘what gets measured gets done’. Most of us would also agree with the statement ‘organisations measure what leaders consider important’. Refusing to set gender targets at leadership level results in little progress, and a clear message to employees and stakeholders that diversity is of little importance to the organisation.

This is probably the right time to acknowledge an elephant in the room. We call it the ‘meritocracy elephant’, and it goes something like this:

Setting targets will result in the perception of token women at the top. Our leaders are appointed based on merit, not gender.

This is arguably valid when the percentage of female staff and female leaders sits at approximately 50%. When an organisation is more representative of the typical leaky talent pipeline (70% of women in frontline roles; 30% of women in leadership roles), then it is evident that there is far more than just merit at play – and arguing otherwise may well be insulting to female employees.

3.      Shying away from women’s only programs because they’re politically uncomfortable. We know that, as soon as you announce you are investing in the development of your women, you will likely get two standard responses from employees:

a.      (From men): This isn’t fair: I’ve worked hard and deserve access to development and promotion too.

b.      (From women): I don’t need to be ‘fixed’, and I don’t need special treatment because I’m a woman

We have been asked so often how organisations should respond to these concerns that we have developed draft communication around each (email us at info@inklingwomen.com if you’d like a copy). In a nutshell, though, organisations need to invest in women’s leadership development because a) gender balance at leadership level will lead directly to better organisational performance, b) most organisations are far from reaching gender balance at leadership level and are making little progress, despite significant investment, and c) women’s leadership programs create direct return on investment when it comes to achieving diversity and inclusion objectives.

So what does work when it comes to increasing the representation of women at leadership level?

1.      Investing in women-only leadership programs. Women-only leadership programs generate significantly better outcomes than mixed programs in measures like promotion rate, performance, engagement and commitment. This is for four reasons:

a.      A female only learning space allows women space to speak and share ideas without interruption or silencing. A 2004 Harvard study found that, in a mixed sex environment, men speak far more frequently - and for longer - than women. Women are also three times more likely to be interrupted when speaking than men.

b.      Women’s programs provide the opportunity to work with other outstanding women, paving the way for female advancement. In research conducted by McKinsey & Co., 86% of women report that the more women in leadership they see, the more encouraged they are to strive for higher positions: learning with other high achieving women has a motivational effect.

c.      Female-only development programs support the well-documented learning preferences of women to maximize results. There is a large body of research demonstrating the benefits of an all-women learning environment and applying that knowledge makes a meaningful, positive difference for leadership training.

d.      Women-only programs specifically address the unique challenges women face, allowing them to overcome barriers to leadership that include:

  • The double bind (recent research reported in the Harvard Business Review shows that confident women must also be perceived as warm to be seen as effective)
  • The perception that ‘good leadership’ is based on traditionally masculine qualities including competitiveness, short-term decision-making and hierarchy
  • Experiences of backlash: women who violate gender norms tend to be perceived negatively
  •  Disproportionate responsibility for caregiving combined with a lack of flexible work arrangements in some organisations
  • Reduced access to sponsors in comparison to men.
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2.      Working with all people leaders to build inclusive leadership practices. Developing your high potential female talent in a women-only environment rapidly lifts the percentage of women at leadership level (see Figures 1 and 2). But doing this without also investing in their leaders exposes you to a risk: the women will return to work, feel unsupported in their career advancement and leave to seek a more inclusive and supportive workplace. For this reason, we almost always work closely with the leaders of the high potential women to ensure they can support, challenge and grow their employees as they develop their skills, confidence, knowledge and self-awareness. In doing so, we partner with our clients to gradually create a cohort of leaders with the motivation and ability to create teams in which everyone can flourish.

3.      Committing to fully flexible working conditions. In many organisations, the flexible work policy is sound but its practice is entirely dependent on the individual manager. In organisations that have adopted an ‘all roles are flexible’ policy and practice, the results are undeniably potent:

a.      At Commonwealth Bank, there was an 85.5% increase in the number of people leaders working part-time. Of the estimated 7,000 part-time employees, 89.5% were women.

b.      At Telstra, the ‘All Roles Flex’ program led to i) over 90% employee retention after taking parental leave; ii) significantly higher female representation across the business and; iii) three times as many men taking parental leave.

You have probably attended a breakfast or panel session on gender equality and heard one of the speakers say, “achieving gender balance is hard. There is no silver bullet”. That’s true. However we know more than enough to choose between the interventions that help organisations achieve their D&I objectives, and interventions that don’t. The sooner we commit to the former and drop the latter, the sooner we will achieve gender balance at leadership level.

- Dr Gemma Munro

This article was originally published by HR Director Magazine