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Want More Women in Leadership? Here's How You Can Get Started

Elizabeth Trompeter on October 18, 2016 11:06 AM

Women’s equality, work-life balance and family-friendly benefits have all been in the spotlight this year. They have been touched on by almost every publication, and have even received huge attention this political election run.

And the gender gaps in our workforce are on full display in the 2016 “Women in the Workplace” report from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, with data and analysis ranging from promotion rates to senior leadership ambitions.

It’s no coincidence that this topic keeps coming up and business leaders rank gender diversity as a corporate priority – there are clear correlations between gender diversity and bottom line results. But to address gender inequality, we need to examine and address the causes and effects.   

Here, we’ll take a look five things that will help achieve workplace equality and encourage women in leadership:

  1. Understanding Obstacles at Work and Home   
    The more involved employees are at home, the less interested they are in senior leadership, the Women in the Workplace survey found. While 43 percent of women who share responsibilities evenly with their partner aspire to become top executives, only 34 percent of women who do a majority of housework and child care have the same aspiration. This phenomenon is true for men, as well, which begs the question of whether this is an issue of gender inequality or inequality of gender roles.

    The ambition disparity makes sense on a fundamental level – when you spend all of your energy taking care of house and children, giving it your all at work becomes harder. But, as young people strive toward more equal sharing of household responsibilities, how will our future leaders – male or female – emerge if workplace cultures don’t adjust?

    One way businesses can address this is by creating an environment in which employees don’t have to choose between work and home. Reinforce your leadership pipeline work-life benefits. When you’re able to help ease the responsibilities at home, it reduces work-life conflict and enables employees to invest more of themselves in their work without compromising their contributions at home.
  2. Strive for a More Representative Management Team
    There’s a saying that there aren’t more women in leadership because there aren’t more women in leadership. What’s that mean? Lacking mentors, networks and leaders who understand the obstacles they face, it’s harder for females to forge a career path to the top in male-dominated organizations or fields. Today, only about one in five senior execs are women.  

    While most married workers are in dual-income families, the majority of those at the highest levels of Corporate America are not. In a 2014 paper analyzing studies of close to 1,000 male managers, men whose spouses do not work outside the home were found to be “more likely to have negative attitudes toward women in the workplace” than men in dual-income marriages. And they tend to evaluate work-life policies on the basis of their own “personal beliefs and marriage structures.”

    When that same evaluation process spills over into employee evaluations, it can become an obstacle for working moms (and dads). This is why it’s important to have diversity in leadership. Companies have taken a variety of approaches to achieving that diversity, including revamping hiring, evaluation, promotion and cultural policies. To get diversity right, it’s important to test, iterate and find a multi-faceted approach that fits your organization. 

  3. Make Work-Life Balance Easier to Attain 
    Making it work with a full-time job and kids is hard; it is like having two full-time jobs. According to LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, 42 percent of men and women say they wouldn’t want to be a top executive because they wouldn’t be able to balance family and work commitments.

    Over half of companies surveyed offer programs to help employees with work-life balance, but fewer offer family-specific benefits and programs. Offering benefits like flexible work arrangements, back-up care and resource and referral services can make employees feel more comfortable and secure in their jobs, in turn making them more productive and motivated to advance. Again, when businesses can remove the sense that employees need to choose work or home, they’re able to create a culture in which today’s workforce can – and will – thrive and advance.

  4. Make Sure Management Leads by Example
    Hearkening back to an earlier point, how is a man or woman going to feel confident taking on an active role in their family’s life if their bosses don’t do the same? According to the survey, fewer than 1 in 4 employees take advantage of helpful work-life balance benefits and programs. Why not? Less than half of “employees report that managers often support team members who take advantage of flexible work options, and even fewer say senior leaders frequently model work-life balance by taking time off.”

    In that context, how would a working mom feel like she won’t be penalized for leaving at 3:30 on Tuesdays for a month because her kid’s failing math and she needs to find a tutor when her boss is staying hours later every night? If senior management would lead by example and make it clear that employees won’t be penalized for taking care of their family when they need to, it would create an open, family-friendly work culture that would benefit not just women, but all employees.

  5. Have the Tough Conversations
    Although it can be awkward and difficult, a crucial first step to addressing gender inequality in the workplace is through open and honest conversation. “Although 62 percent of senior leaders say that gender diversity is an important personal priority, only 28 percent of employees say senior leaders regularly encourage a candid, open dialogue on the topic,” the survey says. According to Fast Company, you just need to rip the Band-Aid off and start asking questions and talking about the uncomfortable. Talk about pay gap and hiring, and about family matters traditionally viewed as women’s issues that are really men’s too, like paid leave and work-life balance that matter to working fathers as well.  

    The more you talk about it, whether it be female leadership or work-life issues, the less stigma surrounds an issue and the more you can achieve. Initiatives like mentor programs, talking career progression in reviews, and career coaching are a great way to start the conversation. Moving these issues – and strategies for resolving them – out into the open provides an added measure of accountability where you want to fulfill your commitment to deliver on diversity initiatives.

  6. Get Men Involved
    Almost all of these previous suggestions had a common thread: Get men involved. Men are a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to gender equality, and they’ve been getting involved more than ever in recent years. When men speak out on women’s issues, like the HeForShe campaign, or speak out on family issues in general, like the growing number of men taking on more caregiving responsibilities and advocating for paid leave, breaking down gender stereotypes becomes easier. When men acknowledge that there is in fact a pay gap, it becomes easier to close. If more women were sponsored by senior leadership their likelihood to move up in company ranks would increase drastically. When the men in your workplace take advantage of flexibility and family-friendly benefits, it destigmatizes caregiving and work-life balance. These things cease to be seen as women’s issues and liabilities for women in leadership.

Have you instituted gender diversity initiatives at your workplace? What have been the most – or least – effective strategies?

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