How HR leaders can help women reach the top in male-dominated industries

For every 100 men promoted into management, 70 women are. Here's how to tackle inequalities and elevate more women to the top

Survival of the fittest favours the dominant group and as the dominant group in many industries, men often experience far more opportunities than women to develop their careers.

Every employee needs to know he or she is there on merit, but the survival of the fittest is not a meritocracy. Male-dominated organisations need to focus on creating equitable opportunities, sustainable work environments, and driving female talent advancement from entry-level right up to senior leadership.

Different perspectives, diverse skillsets and creative, agile thinking are all critical elements for business success. Organisations must look at the typical challenges women face and clear the way for talented female leaders to reach the top. 

HR leaders

If you’re an HR leader, here’s what you can do to make that happen.

Firstly, make sure your CEO and broader leadership team understand that diversity and inclusion are strategic priorities and must be led from the top. Encourage and support your CEO in facilitating a leadership-level workshop to define strategy, roles and planning. Have them assign responsibility and clear accountability for different workstreams to different members of your Board to ensure each function/ business is involved. Use the opportunity to set measurable objectives to evaluate what’s working and what’s not, with regular feedback opportunities to the team on progress. While you need to play an active role in leading HR-specific workstreams, the overall direction must be given by the organisation’s leadership. 

Secondly, set up a talent management programme to identify and nurture talent at the earliest stages. Define performance criteria to describe skills, behaviours and abilities of value to the business and assess future and existing talent against them.

Shortlists requiring representation of both female and male candidates and targets set for female representation should be the norm, along with clear lines of accountability.

Framework for development

For those women identified as having potential, formulate a framework for development including business and leadership training, internal mentoring, and regular discussions with line managers on what’s working and what’s not. Ensure that each talent has clear next steps to map out career development and broaden their experience from working in different functions – Finance, Operations, Sales etc. – and with different senior executives.

Provide coaching to help women learn skills and strategies that will support them in their advancement – from knowing themselves and understanding their strengths and ambitions to taking responsibility for their development, building confidence, reputation and visibility. When integrated early these skills will help women to own their progress and see new opportunities as a chance to learn rather than a risk, they’re not ready for.

Thirdly, building a diverse and inclusive culture requires certain skillsets. Work with your CEO to ensure that your senior team members are equipped with the skills and knowledge to build the culture you’re aiming for. These include a commitment to investing in people; courage to challenge traditional attitudes and practices; curiosity to understand different perspectives and collaboration to share views, carefully managing team compositions, and to build a group identity with shared goals.

Bias training

Set up specific training to support different stakeholders in the roles you’re expecting them to play as part of the talent development programme or more broadly within the organisation. For hiring managers, unconscious bias training will help them understand and address automatic thinking patterns that may impact recruitment and development decisions. Line managers also have a critical part in delivering regular and meaningful, career-advancing feedback to female talent, so offer training on how and when they can provide it.

Next, establish a platform to facilitate group discussions and build connections. Make sure female role models at senior levels engage with younger women, and create opportunities for high-performing women to share experiences and insights about real workplace issues, and learn from other women in similar contexts. Set up an internal mentorship programme to help female talent navigate the organisation’s relationship dynamics and support discussions on career trajectory. Support their visibility within the wider organisation by giving access to leadership level networking opportunities where senior management can see what they’re capable of, how they think, communicate and contribute.

Diversity initiatives

Finally, work hand in hand with Communications to share your work around diversity initiatives and engage the wider workforce. Use them as a lever to strengthen motivation and engagement.  Invite the CEO and other senior leaders to participate in regular diversity focus groups – ensure they mention what they learn from what they hear in their communications. Underline the importance of creating a culture that embraces diversity by allowing for everyone’s flexible, sustainable work environments. 

These steps will enable you, as HR leaders, to contribute significantly to company strategy, and to ensure that women are given the opportunities to find their path as decision-makers and leaders within your organisations.

Natasha Harvey is a certified transformational coach and founder of Embrace your Change. She has two decades’ experience as a director and executive committee member within the defence and aerospace industries. She now works with organisations and individuals to run coaching and mentoring programmes for young women to help build self-awareness, self-confidence, strong communications skills and resilience. Find out more:

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