5 Ways to Break Down the Barriers for Women to Access Leadership Roles

February 21, 2020 Becky Frankiewicz

  • More awareness and conversation on gender is surely a good thing, but is this “noise” masking a lack of real action and progress?
  • Attracting and developing more women in leadership roles requires company-wide change, driven from the top.
  • Retention, succession, addressing the skills gap and committing to inclusion are some of the ways organizations can challenge the status quo.

Gender equality and getting more women into leadership roles are trending topics. Of the top 30 most used hashtags of 2019, five were specifically around women, from #WomenInSTEM to #PressforProgress and #WCW (Women Crush Wednesday). More awareness and conversation on gender is surely a good thing, but is this “noise” masking a lack of real action and progress? There is still a significant lag in fulfilling the promises of equality at work, with a 100-year gap from female representation in leadership to pay equity.

As a woman, and mom of three daughters, with a 25-year career from sales, to consulting, to packaged goods and now leading North America for ManpowerGroup, my experience has taught me that if companies address culture as a priority in their business, we would accelerate progress. Quickly. While encouraging women to lean in and raise their hands higher can help, we must place equal focus on employers to take action and fix the problem.

Attracting and developing more women in leadership roles requires company-wide change, driven from the top.

Here are five ways organizations can challenge the status quo to create an environment where women can achieve their potential. Spoiler: they don’t include women’s groups or diversity training.

1. Pay and benefits might attract, but it takes more to make women stay
This week, we launch new global research that reveals global talent shortages are at a record high of 56%, almost double that of a decade ago. In this environment of high-skills shortages and low unemployment, it’s more important than ever to understand what workers want. To find out, we asked 15,000 people across 15 countries and analyzed the results by gender and age. People told us companies need to prioritize more than pay.

Workers today expect to “consume” work in the same way they live the rest of their lives. Individual choice and preference aren’t just personal, they’re professional. Work and personal life are no longer mutually exclusive, they are intrinsically linked. The next generation wants challenging work, skill development and flexibility. While women continue to do most of the emotional labor and unpaid work at home, it’s critical that challenging work comes with flexibility. More and more women are taking their careers into their own hands – 40% of US businesses are women-owned and the number of female entrepreneurs has skyrocketed by 114% in the last two decades.

The good news – companies that help people work when, where and how it suits them won’t just appeal to women. We're increasingly seeing what works for women works for men too, particularly younger workers who expect to spend more time with family, traveling or learning new skills.

2. Focus on succession
Succession isn’t just the most-watched show of 2019, it also needs to be top priority for leaders. Women make up half of the world’s talent pool. In the US, 50.2% of the college-educated labor force is made up of women. They have long eclipsed men in earning college degrees, yet women still only hold 25% of leadership roles. Plain and simple, an all-male succession bench simply won’t cut it.

To address this, companies need to break down gendered career paths, so women don’t get stuck in job silos that are historically female like communications, HR and support roles.

To accelerate women into leadership starts with questioning what is truly required to climb the corporate ladder. Is an extensive finance career needed to be a successful general manager? Will set office hours improve employee productivity? (If you think so, data says otherwise.) Flip the question and ask how it could work, not why it doesn’t. Be explicit about where to progress women and help them obtain the skills and experience to manage and drive the business in technical and operational positions.

3. Address the double gender-skills gap in STEM
Data tells us that women are under-represented in the roles that are growing the fastest – notably STEM – and that the roles that have historically been held predominantly by women (like business and financial operations, and office administration) are roles most susceptible to disruption by automation. If we don’t intervene, the imbalance will accelerate from the double gap.

While we may have reached near parity in the number of men and women graduating with degrees in social sciences and mathematics, at least in the US, in computer science we’re in reverse. Today, women make up only 18% of computer science graduates, compared with 37% in the 1980s. In cloud computing, just 12% of professionals are women. Similarly, in engineering: 15% and Data and AI: 26%.

Often the focus is on how education should be adapted to better equip people for jobs. Actually, to hire more and address longstanding talent shortages, employers should look at the requirements they set as they recruit. In the US, the education and experience employers require for tech roles is higher than the supply: 86% of IT job openings require a bachelor's degree in computer science, yet just 43% of IT workers have one; 92% of Java developer job ads ask for a degree when only 48% of developers have one. These requirements need to change to ensure more diverse talent has access to future growth roles.

Image: Global Gender Gap Report 2020, World Economic Forum

4. Know the future is a skills world
A digital society is a dynamic one. New technologies will regularly enter the marketplace, creating new skills and new roles as fast as others disappear. Today it is widely accepted that a small proportion of jobs may disappear but more significantly 100% of roles will change. In a skills-based economy, how well you can learn and adapt is more important than what you already know. Yet we continue to make hiring and promotion decisions through interviews and very specific requirements based on years of tenure and past experience in unrelated roles.

The biggest barrier to progress, identified by men and women, is an entrenched male culture based on merits created by men, shaped by presenteeism and defined by male standards.

In sharp contrast, professionally designed interviews supported by well-designed assessments decrease bias while increasing the quality of the hire. This is how we can best match people’s skills and potential to roles and create a level playing field for all candidates.

5. Walk the talk and make the commitment to inclusion
While women and men enter the workforce in roughly equal numbers, women fall behind in promotions from the very first step on the management ladder. We know from our own research that the key to improving these odds lies with senior leaders – male and female – to ensure women are not left behind. As leaders, we all need to demonstrate this is a business priority – by what we say, what we do, what we measure and how we lead.

Across the hundreds of thousands of clients we work with globally, we see plenty of companies spend time planning how they will hire more diverse workers without a clear plan to develop and keep them. This is where culture and work models come in. Creating an inclusive environment where everyone wants to continue working is about more than just policies and hiring practices, it’s an ongoing environment where everyone brings their whole self to work each day and feels valued, heard and able to make an impact while progressing their careers.

The single most powerful thing an organization can do to promote more women leaders is to create a culture of “Conscious Inclusion” – building the desire, insight and capacity of people to make decisions. Lead, think and act with the conscious intent of including everyone.

At the dawn of the 2020s, we can’t remain rooted in the past. We must hit the accelerator to build an equal and inclusive future. Our economic growth, workforce participation and future generations depend on it.

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