One of the most sobering statistics for anyone who cares about gender equity in business leadership is this: While women comprise nearly 60 percent of college undergrads, they are 30 percent less likely than their male counterparts to be working after graduation. Research also shows the gender imbalance starts to widen as soon as an employee’s first promotion.
Closing the gap between campus and the workforce, accelerating careers for women, and boosting talent initiatives for future leaders requires confronting challenging and ingrained structural issues in our minds and our businesses. This isn’t altruism or charity — it’s very much in the self-interest of companies to make sure talented women are given opportunities to lead and contribute.
The encouraging thing is many companies have taken a hard look at their own numbers in recent years and have done the equally hard work required to confront their own policies and practices to address the talent shortage.
For two decades, I’ve worked closely with local business leaders — including men and women from some of the largest companies based in Michigan — to identify ways to build and bolster talent pipelines and create equitable leadership in workplaces. This includes confronting unconscious biases and developing soft skills, but it also means finding ways to form valuable relationships and use existing spheres of influence to support and promote the next generation of leaders.
What follows are important and effective insights, lessons, skills, and strategies companies (and especially executive leaders) can use to make meaningful progress toward empowering more women leaders and closing the gender gap in the workplace.
Change happens when companies are willing to take a long and thoughtful look at their own processes and ask tough questions about how they mentor and grow talent and how they make decisions as a company. Look closely at your talent management and succession planning processes, which are often lacking in metrics-based analysis and instead are based largely on relationships. Introduce more rigor into how you develop personnel and prepare them for future roles. Are women given sufficient opportunities for stretch assignments? How are they given feedback on their work? Are hiring managers being inclusive, and are they being held accountable for their choices?
The focus on millennial priorities and preferences in recent years has also been a welcome reminder that “women’s issues” are ultimately workforce issues. Ensuring equal opportunity to desirable projects and clients, a fair chance at advancement and promotions, and healthy work-life integration are things employers can do to benefit not just women, but all employees.
Follow the leader
Studies have shown one of the most reliable indicators of how long an employee stays with a company is a positive relationship with his or her boss. It’s a sign of just how important the actions and attitudes of leadership are in shaping the personality and practices of a workplace. And it’s further support for the notion that, when it comes to gender equity issues, leaders must lead. The role of executive leadership in setting expectations and holding people accountable for their promotions and hiring decisions is vital. Leaders can’t just aspire to doing the right thing — they need to be a vocal role model and a visible champion. Managers will almost always fall in line behind executive desires and expectations.
Executives who want to make lasting and impactful change in this arena should go beyond platitudes and lip service and be willing to examine and address specific behaviors and outcomes. Look hard at your diversity numbers in detail and hold one-to-one meetings with managers whose numbers are out of sync. Be willing and able to have tough, honest conversations. Nothing replaces a CEO or top-level leader coming out vocally in support of these issues. That support has to be followed with pragmatic, meaningful changes on an operational level. If there’s a disconnect between what a company says and what it does, it shows. Lasting change takes follow-up and follow-through.
Both male and female executives can share with and learn from each other to become better allies in expanding the talent pipeline. When we find ways to challenge each other and share best practices and experiences, the result can be the enormous strides needed to shift cultures of both individual companies and entire industries.
Take the initiative
Don’t be passive. Change isn’t going to happen on its own. Seek out opportunities for training and education, especially on tricky issues like unconscious bias, and share experiences with peers to find inspiration from people in similar roles. Employee resource groups (open to both men and women) can help raise awareness and expose participants to new perspectives.
CEOs who want to get a clear-eyed perspective on where they stand on these issues should look at the numbers. It’s not about quotas. But hard data can provide a clear sense of what a team looks like: not just how many women are employed, but what roles they are in. Leaders are frequently surprised at the disparities they find. Change starts there.
Making permanent change takes commitment. It also takes time. Research shows cultural changes typically take five years or more to take root. This is a process, not an event. But it’s a process with a profound and positive impact on organizations, industries, and our community and leads to more men and women leaders becoming fierce, passionate, and effective advocates for real and lasting change in the workplace.
Terry A. Barclay is the president and CEO of Inforum, where she oversees a combination of strategic connections, professional development programs, and a forum for new ideas and original research to accelerate careers for women and boost talent initiatives for companies.