How to drive the cause of women in leadership in your organisation

There is a clear business case for more action to bolster women in leadership. Juliane Sterzl, VP of UK&I, CoachHub has some ideas

It is easy to assume that progress is being made towards gender diversity in the workplace, given the increasing amount of media attention given to women in leadership, but all is not as it seems. Juliane Sterzl, VP of UK&I, CoachHub shares her thoughts.

Most recently, we’ve seen global recognition for female leaders in their handling of the pandemic, with the likes of Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern highlighted for their success in combating the COVID-19 crisis.

The most effective decisions are made based on a range of experiences and diverse thinking styles; leadership requires a collective effort. This is a philosophy many women (and men) in leadership positions promote; to empathise and listen, not demand or decree from on high. However, we are by no means there yet.

Women hold only 19% of board seats and 15% of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies. Only 4% of these companies have female CEOs, while women’s board tenures are shorter and, according to the Chartered Management Institute and XpertHR, men are two fifths more likely to be promoted to senior positions. Industries such as technology also stand out for their lack of progress in this regard, with women accounting for only 24% of technology positions, and just 27% of keynote speeches at technology conferences, despite making up 47% of the labour force.

In this time of crisis, we need to reflect on the progress made towards gender equality and address the continuing challenges for women in leadership. Here’s how:

Workplace obstacles

It’s well-established that women face certain challenges in their professional lives that their male counterparts are far less likely to encounter. For a start, having to overcome the status quo creates barriers and obstacles to success for women from the outset.

It can often be lonely to be the only minority in the room. Recent studies carried out in corporate environments have shown that individuals who are the “onlies” (i.e. the only woman/ LGBTQ/ only person of colour etc.) are subject to more discrimination and bias from the rest of the group, whether subconscious or not. When you enter a meeting as the only woman in the room, it can be an uncomfortable experience, which may contribute to perceptions of underperformance in the eyes of the group.

This can also come about as the result of a gap in gender expectations and standards. Research from PEW Research Center has demonstrated that women are required to do more when demonstrating their abilities to achieve regard on the same level as their male counterparts, and are held to a higher standard.

This becomes doubly problematic when added to the results of a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which showed that women are also much less inclined to self promote. Recognition and acknowledgement of valuable work achievements could be falling by the wayside as a result; a problem further compounded when men in the same team take credit for the same work.

Third, there’s the question of work-life balance and work pattern flexibility, which has become a pressing issue with the recent lockdown and closure of schools. Again, improvements are certainly being made to accommodate employees’ home commitments without negatively impacting their professional careers. However, a 2019 poll carried out by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) showed that employers rejected one in three flexible working requests, disproportionately affecting women, who make such requests more frequently.

Furthermore, a 2016 study by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission highlighted that 20% of mothers had directly experienced negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer or colleagues, with over three quarters facing a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy from their employers.

Actions to be taken

There is a clear business case for action. According to the International Labour Organization’s Women in Business and Management report issued last year, more than 57% of the 13,000 enterprises in 70 countries around the world agreed that gender diversity initiatives improved business outcomes. Added to this, almost 75% of those organisations who tracked these initiatives reported profit increases of between 5-20%.

Such initiatives have been documented as improving creativity, innovation in management practices, openness and enhancing company reputations in the organisations that implemented such directives. In this study, in particular, nearly 37% of those polled reported that such initiatives enabled them to more effectively gauge customer sentiment, which has a direct impact on the bottom line.

One of the most impactful actions an organisation can take is to implement a women in leadership programme. Topics that tackle issues of particular importance for women should be included, such as negotiation skills, developing personal influence within an organisation and matching leadership skills to leadership challenges. Women in leadership programmes drive results across the board, not just for the women participating, but for company-wide results. With the business world adapting and changing rapidly in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the urgency of such efforts has become even more apparent.

It is clear that organisations who devote personnel time and expense to establishing women in leadership programmes will see a positive ROI. The research generated as a direct result of McKinsey’s decade-long Remarkable Women Programme identified five leadership traits that women more frequently exhibited, including inspiration, people development, role modelling and participative decision making.

So what to do? An actionable insight when it comes to hiring, for example, is that men will apply for a job they are less than two-thirds qualified for, whereas most women only apply if they fit the job description exactly. In this respect, develop performance-based job descriptions with a focus on what a candidate would be responsible for delivering, rather than merely listing qualifications. When you’re ready to interview, another suggestion is to ensure that you have a representative panel so that women feel more comfortable and to make sure you eliminate as much unconscious bias as possible.

Digital coaching, in particular, has been proven to be extremely effective. Connection, trust and empathy are crucial when it comes to female career development with a coach or mentor, and in the modern age, digital coaching can ensure all these elements are catered for, with new advances such as AI matching systems enabling a highly personalised approach.

For example, one of the organisations we’ve worked with at Coachhub is the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Their future female talent programme required a strength-based approach to build coaching confidence and reinforce learnings on an ongoing basis, with flexibility a strong requirement given the differing needs of participants in the programme. With this approach, the EBRD has now created a pipeline to build outstanding female leaders in the years to come.

The key is setting Women in Leadership initiatives in motion. For companies that don’t have the expertise to develop such programmes on their own, partnerships with coaches or talent development experts can help plug the gaps in infrastructure. Progress in this vein, whether internally or externally guided, will help organisations and companies build more representative leadership across the board, driving greater performance, and ultimately enhancing the bottom line.

Juliane Sterzl, VP of UK&I, CoachHub

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