It's Not You, It's Me

February 21, 2020 Mara Swan

Companies can no longer afford to have a laissez-faire approach to attracting, engaging and developing female talent if they want to remain competitive. 

Today there is more focus on gender equality and women at work than ever yet we are still caught in a circular conversation about why we do not have enough women in leadership positions. Are they pushed out by male centric cultures and the competitive squeeze to the top? Are they pulled out by better offers by our competitors? Why do so many venture out on their own to start their own business? And, while things have improved – 2019 saw women hold 29 percent of senior management roles globally, the highest number on record – we still have a long way to go to achieve parity for women in leadership. Something has to change about the way organizations assess, develop and leverage female talent. We need to act with the conscious intent of including women in leadership.

Women: the world’s largest untapped resource
Today’s labor market is tight and most developed countries are close to full employment. Yet, global talent shortages are at a record high. This year, 54 percent of companies globally say they cannot find the skills they need – almost double what it was a decade ago. In a knowledge-based economy, talent is a key determining factor of the competitive success of organizations. Many companies report that the most significant barrier to growth is their ability to attract and retain a skilled workforce.

Women continue to be an underutilized source of talent, despite attaining higher levels of education than their male peers in OECD countries. Companies can no longer afford to have a laissez-faire approach to attracting, engaging and developing female talent if they want to remain competitive. At the same time, it is getting more difficult to attract and retain skilled women since they have more choice now than ever. In the US women makeup nearly half (47 percent) of the labor force, occupy 52 percent of all management and professional occupations in business, but hold just 21 percent of board seats. A little over a quarter of women hold executive officer positions, but only 11 percent are top earners and a just five percent are CEOs. Although we’ve increased the number of women in the workplace, we haven’t succeeded in getting them into the key P&L, executive, and board positions that are imperative for developing core strategy and business results.

Women face a further hurdle. Technological disruption in the form of AI, digitalization and robotics will disproportionately impact female workers. This is because the roles most threatened by automation tend to have higher proportions of women. We also expect to see growth in tech, digital and STEM-related jobs, including data analysts, machine learning specialists and engineers – all roles where women are underrepresented. If we focus on helping women develop technical skills at speed and at scale, while at the same time hiring people with learnability – the desire and ability to learn new skills – we can make a real difference in shaping a future in which everyone can be ready for high-growth roles.

Barriers to getting women in leadership
Organizational structure, a male-dominated culture, and old-fashioned views of ways of working, especially surrounding workplace flexibility, are keeping us from retaining top talent and progressing women into leadership positions. The issue is not whether women are able to adapt to fit your organization’s culture, but whether your organization can adapt to women’s needs. Women with higher education levels are prepared to compete in a knowledge economy, and while we’ve successfully enabled women to enter the labor force, it’s time for us to take responsibility to ensure they make it to the top.

Over the past 30 years, organizations have changed recruiting tactics, created development and mentoring programs, conducted gender sensitivity training and launched affinity programs. A lot of time and money has been spent, but these efforts just haven’t produced stellar results. Program success has been lackluster because the programs are a generic and linear solution for a complicated issue. While recruiting tactics have brought women into the workforce, development and mentoring programs aren’t keeping them in. When women do stay, they largely stay in ‘pink ghetto’ roles, i.e., staff roles instead of P&L roles, minimizing their chances of moving up. Women need experience and exposure to advance, and today experience in business transformation and digitization is particularly valuable.

Staying in staff roles is not in itself a bad thing, as long as we can ensure that it is an individual choice, but more often than not this isn’t the case. We need to make sure women aren’t making this choice because they don’t feel encouraged to consider line roles, haven’t thought of line roles as options, or the cultural or job role conditions are not amicable to their needs. For example, 65 percent of women say flexible work options are important to them, yet only 28 percent of employers offer them. Often needs like this can be met with a little creativity and flexibility.

The role of CHROs
Instead of programs, CHROs need to examine how decisions are made about women in their organizations and how the potential of these women can be cultivated. We need to change our cultures to be more welcoming to women. Our top leadership has to walk the talk from representation of women in executive management up through the board of directors. The critical tipping point: top leadership commitment. But our research shows that 32 percent of male leaders say that the responsibility is HRs – not theirs.

Often we forget the ways in which we can be implicitly biased about women’s behaviors. Unconscious bias, though not intentional, can have disastrous results. During my interactions with hiring and promotional decisions over the years, I noticed the words used to explain the behavior of male versus female colleagues in the workplace. Frequently, women’s behaviors are referred to with negative phrasing whereas men’s are referred to with positive phrasing. So the ‘assertive’ man becomes the ‘aggressive' woman. The man who is referred to as a good ‘networker’ becomes the woman who is referred to as 'gossipy’. This needs to change.

We need to make sure that we focus on having the right discussion every time we make an individual human capital decision, particularly for executive management, P&L jobs, and board seats. We must take a systematic look at the impact of our decisions. For example, if we have made thirty individual decisions and justified all of them, but these decisions still result in an underrepresentation of women, then it’s clear a new approach is needed. As CHROs, we’re often too focused on ensuring that each individual decision is correctly made and legally defensible, rather than putting our energy into ensuring that our long term organizational objectives and interests are achieved through each individual decision.

In short, we need to help leaders do a better job at creating a culture that allows for gender parity across every line of the business. This can be done by focusing diversity efforts on better data analytics and equipping the CEO and their leadership team with metrics to evaluate and achieve measurable results. This macro analysis provides a wider view into the micro causes of our talent problems. We can then use the analysis to target specific tactics to address parity issues particular to each of our cultures. By looking at the macro data, we take emotion out of gender in the workplace.

While this solution sounds simple, it’s much harder to actualize. While there’s no one-size-fits-all for something as complex as fixing the leaky talent pipeline, there are ways to change your culture to leverage the human capital women: (1) run analytics (2) determine outcomes (3) take action and (4) share progress.

To me the end game is simple. Attract and develop more women and lose less. Let’s stop talking and take action to ensure women have equal access, representation and skills to capture the opportunities in the future world of work.

Previous Article
Case Study: Leader Development Drives Business Transformation
Case Study: Leader Development Drives Business Transformation

A global navigation company undergoing a business transformation needed help identifying and developing the...

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

Here are five ways organizations can challenge the status quo to create an environment where women can achi...