Tracy Lawrence* says creating a truly gender diverse and inclusive workplace is a leadership issue and an organisational imperative.
We all know that women can be – and are – badass leaders.
Women offer new ways of approaching problems, bringing fresh energy and a different perspective.
But even though gender diversity has been linked to greater profitability, employers are failing to put real muscle into achieving it.
The gap between what employers say about gender equality and what they’re actually doing about it is massive.
A necessity, not a perk
Organisations that actively pursue gender diversity and encourage women to step up to leadership positions enter what I call a virtuous cycle: Having women in leadership roles leads to more women at the organisation, which in turn leads to more female leaders, which then attracts more female applicants – and so on.
When junior female employees see women at the top, they feel inspired to strive for great heights too.
Women in leadership positions also make your organisation more attractive to employees of any gender, because people increasingly want to work for organisations that are genuinely inclusive.
That’s especially true for younger employees: nearly half of millennials consider an employer’s diversity and inclusion an important factor in their job searches.
Recognising the hurdles
Creating a truly gender diverse and inclusive workplace is a leadership issue.
It has to be a key component in the organisation’s policies and mission statements and demonstrated through actions.
But there also has to be an understanding of the way our culture has saddled women with significant hurdles that inhibit their promotion to leadership positions.
Perhaps because of the different ways men and women are evaluated, women are less likely to apply for jobs or promotions unless they feel 100 per cent qualified.
Unfortunately, this means they’re filtering themselves out of jobs they aren’t perfectly aligned with but might actually be great matches for.
Men, on the other hand, will give it a shot if they feel they meet 60 per cent of the qualifications.
Women also tend to have stubborn perfectionist streaks, which keeps them from moving forward unless something feels like an exact match.
This isn’t to say that women just need to behave more like men.
These so-called feminine traits can be leadership superpowers.
Everyone should work on their weaknesses, but we should also capitalise on our strengths — no matter how ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ they may be.
Empowering female leadership
Research indicates that only organisations with a genuine, widespread cultural belief in gender diversity experience these benefits.
In other words, organisations that embrace gender diversity as a necessity rather than a nice-to-have and that actively encourage women to take on leadership roles have an edge over those with more passive approaches.
Here are a few key steps to take to help your organisation enter a virtuous cycle of empowering female employees to strive for leadership positions.
Establish active mentorship programs
Mentorship programs make space for rising stars to access and learn from your leaders.
The ideal scenario is female leaders mentoring other women: A study found that women tend to set more ambitious goals when they talk about them with other women compared with when they reflect on their goals alone.
Provide self-awareness and diversity coaching for leaders
Women in the workplace are interrupted much more frequently than are men.
To combat this and other visibility problems women encounter in the workplace, HR professionals need to teach leaders three things:
- Leaders need to learn to recognise when any employee – regardless of gender -feels unable to speak up.
- Leaders should then decide whether the conversation should happen in public or in private. Sometimes an encouragement to speak up (“Alex, do you have something to say?”) might be the best solution; at other times a discussion about why the employee felt unable to speak is healthier.
- Leaders need to establish that their organisation’s culture is one where no-one should be interrupted while they’re talking and where everyone’s voice is important.
Invite anonymous feedback
All leaders should strive to provide a safe way for employees to share their experiences and ideas around gender equity.
Frequent, anonymous surveys can be a great way to capture feedback and give people the ability to speak – although you should also solicit one-on-one feedback about specific events.
When you open the door for one-on-one feedback, you establish that sharing these experiences is something your organisation values.
Supplementing that open feedback with anonymous feedback is a great way to make sure nothing is falling through the cracks.
Good leadership is about knowing when to offer which type of feedback opportunity.
Women in your organisation need to be able to meet and draw inspiration from other powerful women.
Female-only or female-centric groups provide opportunities for women to candidly talk about the challenges they face and receive advice from others who may have dealt with similar issues.
Empowering female voices and female self-expression in the office isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also smart business strategy.
Employers need to recognise this and understand the internal hurdles women face when it comes to striving for leadership positions.
HR professionals can effect real change by educating leaders and making space for women to connect with other women.
* Tracy Lawrence is the founder and CEO of Chewse.
This article first appeared at talentculture.com