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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Grobman

How to Disrupt the Gender Balance in Leadership - A Practical Framework for Action

Change starts from the top and must cascade to all other levels of the company. In the same way that profit generation isn’t outsourced to the Finance department, leadership and overall talent management cannot be outsourced to the Human Resources department, whose role must be of a supporter, rather than orchestrator, of change. Here are 7 broad steps for change (scroll down for a visual framework): 1. Start from the WHY. Recognize that leadership pipelines that largely exclude 50% of the population pose a huge strategic problem for the business and must be treated as such and included on the CEO’s strategic agenda. There are numerous studies that correlate women’s leadership to tangible results such as better shareholder returns and overall profitability and to intangible results such as better decision making and improved creativity and innovation. 2. Align the executive team and prepare them to act as an agent of change. When trying to drive a cultural change, it’s especially important to have the CEO and senior leadership team onboard. The rest of the company will be watching them and mirroring their behaviors, much more than reading HR bulletins. They should gain awareness on topics such as organizational culture, change management, the business case for diversity, the current gender breakdown of the leadership pipeline + bottlenecks, and unconscious bias and its impact on talent management. Executives should also be coached and trained in storytelling / communications skills to help them develop their own messaging around this complex topic.

3. Make it relevant to your own organization instead of a generic public relations campaign. Develop a business case for change. This may vary from one company to another but some common examples are:

  • Increasing representation of customer demographic among decision makers

  • Strengthening capabilities such as collaboration, communications, risk management, ethics, health & safety, sustainability, that tend to be more “feminine” qualities and are strongly correlated with long term financial results

  • Fostering innovation by incorporating the experiences and ideas of a diverse set of leaders and breaking groupthink patters

Don’t forget to map out existing barriers to change in terms of organizational culture, processes and systems. 4. Establish Accountability. Change takes time and employees need to know what they are working towards. Set ambitious targets to reach gender parity in all levels of the organization within 5, 10, 15 years (which can vary, depending on the industry and organization’s current situation). Make these targets public and review progress year-to-year. Tie these targets with compensation schemes, alongside other goals. 5. Uncover the ‘SHeroes.’ Review how women are represented in the visual communications of the company both internally and externally (in recruiting).The main question to answer is: do they make part of the hero group of the company (the decision makers, the innovators, the people everyone wants to hang out with)? Are they part of the group of people that others can and do look up to? Ensure that female leaders are visible participants in speaking about business and strategic issues. 6. Treat your female employees as individuals. Understand the real issues that impact their careers choices. Companies love talking about maternity / paternity benefits as a way to show that they are “women-friendly.” Offering these benefits is a great way to show you support your employees’ life choices but they are not enough to attract or retain female talent. They also are applicable to a very specific demographic while there are women from all life situations out there. Think meaningful work, opportunities for promotion, equal pay, respect for individual differences. Make sure that your corporate culture and recruitment strategy reflect these motivations. 7. Cascade to the rest of the company. CEOs may be fully aware of the need for diversity but this doesn’t necessary mean that middle management prioritizes this issue nor acts on it. Increasing awareness of the issues and communicating the company’s commitment will also boost confidence and motivation of female employees. Cascading the strategy to the rest of the organization should include the following three aspects: communication, process redesign and training.

  • Communication: Use senior management for cascading the message to middle management. Ensure that they understand the relevance of this effort to their jobs and overall company’s success. Managers then should be encouraged to stimulate discussions within their teams and report back to senior management. Moreover, instead of having just a special campaign around promoting women’s leadership, incorporate the topic in other corporate communications about the company’s strategy and results. Repetition and relevance are key elements here.

  • Process Redesign: Review current recruiting, promotion and development mechanisms and identify potential for bias. Work with employee groups to re-engineer these processes. Most importantly, ensure that compensation / evaluation / promotion / hiring of middle managers should be linked to their efforts on this topic.

  • Training: you can (and should) create leadership programs to support female employees, but what may be even more powerful is incorporating discussion of gender differences into existing leadership development and on-boarding program. You should also ensure that these programs have equal representation. If you can’t find enough women to participate, try harder.

I created the following visual framework to help you connect all of the above steps.

women in leadership framework, diversity strategy

I am yet to find a company that does all of the above right but there are some interesting structural initiatives out there, from Salesforce admitting and fixing its US$3MM gender gap in salaries, Pinterest deciding to go public with its diversity in both technical and non-technical roles stats and to establish aggressive targets (many companies who normally report these hide them on page 100+ in their sustainability reports), ThoughtWorks completely rethinking how it hires talent, to Google applying data analysis to reengineer its process to encourage female employees to self-nominate for promotion. I am always looking for new practices and ideas and would love to hear from you. If you know of a company driving any exciting changes please leave a comment or contact me directly.

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