To Promote Women in Leadership, Think Along 3 Dimensions

May 25, 2018

Women in leadership

Nearly every company these days is concerned about how to increase and manage diversity, particularly when it comes to bringing more women into leadership roles. Yet despite years of effort and handwringing, few have figured it out. Often, that’s because even the best-intended actions don’t translate effectively to their target audience.

Russell Reynolds Associates surveyed more than 2,100 senior executives around the world and learned that men and women have very different perceptions of organizational efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. For example, 44% of men feel their company’s senior leadership team is sufficiently diverse, compared to 30% of women.

What can companies do to improve the experiences of female professionals? And, equally important, what can women do to become more engaged and feel more at home in the workplace? We can think about the answers in three key dimensions:

How to attract women to new opportunities

Approach women differently about opportunities. In the executive search world, women are more loyal and less likely to jump ship than men, even if they’re not completely happy in their current role. I’ve seen this at every stage of the cycle, from approaching female executives about new opportunities to pushing junior women in my organization to take ownership of their promotions and leave old responsibilities behind.

When you call a woman on a search, she rarely responds to an email or phone call before she has processed whether or not the opportunity is truly interesting to her, what impact her departure would have on her current team, what the conversation with her boss would be like, and how a move would affect her family. Men, conversely, are much more likely to jump into a process and ride along until they decide they don’t stand to benefit from it anymore. In my experience, they’re much more likely than women to get to the point of a job offer, only to turn it down. It’s not that men are disloyal or unethical, it’s just that making everyone else in the world happy is not their top priority.

What this means for companies: Be patient and clever when trying to attract women to your organization. Be prepared to ask multiple times, and try multiple avenues, such as introductions through mutual friends or networks.

What this means for women: Don’t fear the breakup so much that you stay stuck in a bad—or even mediocre—relationship. Take the call, or email, or introductory coffee and see where it takes you.

How to elevate women in an organization

Fast forward. What matters most in accelerating someone’s career path is giving them the right kind of exposure to the things that matter: big accounts, key product development projects, and top executives and board members. Often, this means overlooking a lack of past experience or current job level.

What this means for companies: Make a commitment to push high-potential women to places they don’t necessarily think they’re ready to be yet and support them around that. Aim to assess promising professionals on multiple dimensions, not just on how well they present in meetings.

What this means for women: Be willing to say yes before you think you’re ready. Aim to surround yourself with people who will support uncomfortable conversations around your growth, your future.

Take a hard look at numbers. Women earn about 80% of what men do for equivalent jobs, according to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. It’s easy to let this status quo persist, since pay data tends to be confidential and women tend not to ask for more. But participating in the inequality is just another way of (perhaps unwittingly) undermining the diversity agenda.

What this means for companies: Step up your scrutiny of the pay gap and proactively address it. Consider the deeper issues of opportunity inequality and how to move women into higher-paying roles.

What this means for women: Do your research and ask for more than you think you can get. Statistically speaking, chances are good you’re due for a raise.

How to influence the world around the organization

Filter opportunity streams. Companies often sponsor internal networking groups as a sign of support. What might be more useful is to help women filter and target the external groups that will be of highest value. Alumni groups, industry associations, think tanks, and the like are often the most powerful alliances to invest in, as they yield the most varied opportunities.

What this means for companies: Consider ways to make internal networking groups more productive and promotion-focused. Help women connect more broadly, both for their benefit and yours.

What this means for women: Make time for the networks that matter, especially those connected to previous employers, schools, and associations. Find the people who get called 20 times a week for new opportunities and persuade them to cascade some of those opportunities down to you.

The #MeToo movement has created a momentum toward change that all women can and should benefit from. On both sides, it’s time to recognize that intent has not always translated properly into action. On both sides, it’s time to recognize that the dearth of women in senior roles comes with a price. With hard data and popular sentiment showing the need for greater equality in the workplace, I’d encourage companies and women to move forward with a deeper commitment to setting things right once and for all.

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About The Author

Nada Usina is managing director of Russell Reynolds Associates, a provider of senior-level executive search and assessment. Usina leads the firm’s Technology sector globally and is an active member of the Board & CEO practice.

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