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Female Leadership

Is it enough to keep turning the dial or do we need to turn up the heat?

30 / 09 / 2019Fiona Doherty

Every organisation is focused on high performance and there is clear evidence that gender diversity at a senior level delivers results.  We know that many organisations are trying to turn the dial on gender balance but is progress being made fast enough?  Do we need to take more fundamental action? 

GTI hosted a Top Table event with 12 accomplished HR leaders.  We wanted to look at the key interventions that organisations could make in order to grow female leadership and achieve greater parity.  Here are some of the big fixes and common obstacles:

Make flexible working a right for all?

The advent of the technology era has created an opportunity for flexible working that was not possible a few decades ago.  Now we can see more and more women and men able to better balance their family commitments. However, it’s not without its dangers.  ‘Presenteeism’ has not gone away; and we’re now contending with an ‘always-on’ culture where it’s often expected that people work or pick up emails way after the working day.  This is a real danger to mental health. 

We looked at deeper issues too, for example: the concept of the breadwinner which is still perceived very much as a male role, although legislation now allows for 50 weeks shared parental leave.  We need to make progress here to start to change perceptions and realities.

This was the week that the Conservative MP Helen Whately introduced the flexible working bill proposing employers make all roles flexible, whereby employees would be allowed to choose from a predefined list of flexible arrangements – unless there was a sound business case for why the role could not be done flexibly.

If organisations can start to look at the reality of flexible working for all, then this could have a massive impact on women’s career progression. 

Men and their attitude to female leadership.

One of our guests quoted a recent study, stating 56% of women think there is an issue with female representation at senior level; yet, only 26% of men agree. There’s often a similar relationship between diversity and white, middle-class managers. 

We talked about diversity awareness training, but there’s an opportunity to go much further – and organisations are.  We talked about the various interventions that have been made to improve the proportion of women rising through the ranks – from mentoring and networks to tailored development and sponsorship.

However, we agreed that men’s involvement and support is critical at every stage.  What’s more, we don’t want to create a ‘them and us’ culture.  It’s important to engage men, gain their support and build a truly inclusive culture.

Token appointments send out the wrong message.

There can be a perception that when a woman is promoted or recruited into a leadership role it’s because ‘we need a female on the team’.  While it’s important to celebrate the development of women, it’s important not to prioritise gender over skills, knowledge or even experience.  We don’t want to alienate others. 

Build the right mindset earlier.

Having discussed the issues at senior and mid-management level, our attention turned to the grassroots.  One of our groups talked about the issues starting at school, and whether we are helping young people to build the right skills. Girls are more likely to ask for permission at this age and often demonstrate lower levels of confidence at this age so require their influencers (family, friends and teachers) to help build self-belief. 

We also discussed that more fundamentally, school children may not be learning some of the basic skills that they will need later in life, especially writing skills.  It seems that there needs to be better collaboration, and accountability, between governments, corporates and education providers to effect the change we seek in upskilling the young people entering the workplace.

But how can employers play their part?

  • Can we bring ‘confidence building’ to our skills development mix?
  • How can we develop self-awareness in our future talent so that they are developing an inclusive mindset?
  • How can we build trust and a safe environment where people can be their true self at work?
  • And, most importantly, are we asking young people what they want?

Let’s make flexibility the norm from day one – not just in terms of working flexibility, but also learning flexibly.

Show women how much you care.

So how do we attract more women in the first place?  Employer brand and reputation are key, but there are a few interventions that show women that you are focused on them, such as:

1) Rewriting job descriptions using female-friendly language

2) Delivering insight days to get a preview of the company culture and career progression opportunities

3) Using female ambassadors and even mentors throughout the recruitment process

4) Providing ‘returnships’ to mums as well as the opportunity to re-train in a completely different area

Importantly, these interventions refocus the lens on skills, rather than just experience. 

One size doesn’t fit the whole world.

A lot of these interventions will work around the world, but of course, we must be sensitive to local challenges and cultures.  In China, for example, the previous ‘one female per family’ policy has limited the overall number of women in the workplace.  The role of the female in a collectivist culture will no doubt further impact these statistics. 

Recruiting in parts of Central and Eastern Europe has shown similar trends. However, we’ve also seen significantly higher female representation in areas such as engineering here than in the UK.  There’s no doubt we can learn from these education systems, as well as recruit from these markets!

Redefining the organisation.

So much of what we discussed is related to the wider ‘inclusion’ agenda – creating a culture that respects and appreciates the value of diversity of thought and experience is potentially the key to achieving equality for all minority groups, not just women.

This means organisations redefining many of its way of working. 

- We need to redefine our leadership curriculum to help incumbent decision-makers, rather than just women, whilst focusing on building self-awareness, a growth mindset and the ability to deal with change.

- Gen Z apparently values agile ways of working, expects development and stretch – but do we do enough to find out if this is true?  Make sure you ask them.  

- Let’s take performance management to the next level: reward the leadership traits you seek and actively punish negative behaviours.

- Link your performance management systems to your training initiatives – and ensure your training and development strategy is designed for people of a range of experiences and backgrounds.

Only then can we talk about true equality – when we are no longer focusing on the outliers.

GTI’s Top Table events provide a forum for strategic discussion and thought-sharing.  Are you interested in attending our next Top Table event?  Contact

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