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Part II: Women & Leadership: Ideas for Support & Growth

Tomorrow, March 08, is International Women’s Day. In this 2nd part to my previous post, I propose some solutions for the challenges women face when aiming for leadership positions at the workplace. Organizations like Accenture, Deloitte, GE, and Credit Suisse have already implemented programs for women employees. The steps that seem to work for them can be grouped into the following categories:

1. Follow the data: A study conducted by EY and the Peterson Institute (nonprofit based in Washington) in 2016 found that an increase by approx. 30% in the number of women in leadership positions leads to an approx. 15% rise in organizational profitability. Another study by The Catalyst Group (Canada, 2011) found that this profitability becomes more evident when companies sustain higher representation (3 or more women board directors over 4-5 years) as this can lead to approx. increases of 84% on return on sales, 60% on return on invested capital, and 46% on return on equity. These are some of the most convincing data-driven arguments in favor of encouraging more women to higher leadership positions.

2. Update Regulations: The 2nd step is to consciously update processes and regulations at the workplace.

  • Eliminate stereotypes by reviewing policies and organizational language and behaviors.
  • Create opportunities to support women through empowerment, sponsorship and networking.
  • Encourage senior male leaders to sponsor potential women leaders.
  • Increase the profile of successful women by recognizing their contributions.
  • Encourage successful women to support potential younger women.
  • Support women reduce their 2nd hand bias (i.e., identify gender bias, however subtle).
  • Provide women access to education, programs, time, and resources.
  • Support women’s unique needs: flexi-timing, part-time work, compassionate leave, nanny & crèche services, reduction in work-related travel, etc.
  • Provide opportunities to men to support women at the workplace and at home.
  • Actively work against bias during recruitment.

3. Design focused programs for women: Often times, programs to support women are part of general inclusion and diversity initiatives and are given a generic treatment, or worse, infrequent lip service. This does not help push women towards leadership positions; a more focused approach is required. For e.g., as part of their Real Returns program, banking giant Credit Suisse assist women to get back to work after extended leave from the workplace (women who return after giving birth, or after having raised their children). Even before they start their actual job, women in the Real Returns program are trained to help acclimatize to the changed work environment. They are provided training to upgrade technology and presentation skills. They learn about business and regulatory changes in the financial services industry. All through the program, the women have a mentor and receive support and networking opportunities.
The challenge of quotas: Personally, I am in two minds about instituting quotas for hiring women in leadership positions. In extremely unequal situations, quotas do help jump-start the improvement process. On the other hand, quotas can be unconsciously misused to hire incompetent candidates, which in the long run actually harms the cause.

4. Update the concept of Leadership: Bias against women’s leadership styles is deeply entrenched in the establishment. Women’s development is still anchored in perception rather than in purpose. To change this bias, the concept of leadership needs to be redefined:

  • Shift attention away from style (She’s abrasive.) and focus on performance.
  • Focus on women’s contribution to the project, rather than the help they provide their colleagues on a 1:1 basis (She’s so sweet! Helps everyone!)
  • Describe the consequence of a woman’s responses without using labels for her emotions. (We’ll discuss this later- you’re emotional now.)
  • Stop using code, innuendos, and unsaid comments. (She’s very… you know what I’m talking about.)

5. Update Legislation: Planning on a larger scale, it is of course helpful if national and international initiatives help support women at the workplace (tie programs to International Women’s Day celebrated tomorrow, March 08, or pass legislation to protect women’s rights at the workplace, etc). The organization can support such initiatives, for example, by:

  • Providing diversity information to accompany all financial reporting.
  • Disclosing diversity targets and progress.
  • Disclosing gender pay-gap.

6. Insist on Transparency & Dialogue: Discussing gender issues at the workplace can be unfamiliar, emotional, and disruptive. But starting the conversation and keeping it alive is instrumental in helping deserving women move towards leadership positions.

Categories: Organizational Development

Swati Sengupta

I am a Learning and Performance Consultant from India currently based in Zürich, Switzerland. Over the last 13 years, I have consulted for clients in the retail, technology, manufacturing, banking, shipping, BPO, and healthcare industries. For more details, please visit my Bio page by clicking on the Menu.

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