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Removing Barriers for Women Who Could Be Leaders

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Wed May 13 2015

Removing Barriers for Women Who Could Be Leaders
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Cynthia Stuckey, managing director at the Forum Corporation, believes it is time to stop talking about the lack of women in leadership roles and instead focus on the massive business opportunity of having women in leadership.  

“We must get others to understand the problem, but we also must present solutions to help managers understand the benefit of better gender balance. We need to highlight what companies are doing to build gender balance, and how these actions deliver results. Building a gender-balanced organization takes skill, determination, and courage. It can be taught, encouraged, and rewarded. It must be embraced and agreed upon at the board and CEO levels but owned and executed throughout organizations,” says Stuckey. 

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Encouraging Women to Climb the Corporate Ladder 

For several years, corporations have been struggling to attract and retain women in leadership roles. This begs the question: How do companies encourage women to climb the corporate ladder? 

“Through interactions with female CEO’s to high-ranking global women leaders, it’s been shown that there are still a number of issues preventing organizations from attracting and retaining women. For many companies, female role models are not represented at all levels of their organizations, showing there is no visible commitment to demonstrating that women matter in leadership roles. Younger generations and those in mid-level leadership roles need to see and interact with senior-level female leaders to establish confidence in themselves and trust that businesses value women’s contributions,” Stuckey explains. 

But many women leaders, including Stuckey, will tell you that one of the major reasons for job dissatisfaction and for leaving is the feeling of being an “outsider.” 

According to Stuckey, “Even if you have made it to the top of an organization, or a key senior leadership role, women often feel an acute sense of isolation, and they realize they are not fully integrated into the operation of the business. While women hold the leadership titles and roles, they are often still not equal partners with male leaders in similar roles. Women expect challenges to occur when taking on senior roles, but issues with role equality surface once they arrive.” 

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“Women’s feelings of isolation arise from many factors,” she says. “One is the unconscious bias that some men have about women at work. This can manifest itself by discounting women’s’ opinions, not paying attention when women speak, excluding them from meetings, and not requesting their input.” 

Stuckey adds that networking is another activity from which women are sometimes excluded. “Unless men equally support the social and business networking efforts of women, women will continue to be excluded from key connections where relationships development, critical business discussions are made, and idea-generation occurs.  

“Exposure to decision makers who promote and advance talent can be limited for women when there is no formal system in place to ensure that exposure occurs. When this happens, many companies struggle to acquire and retain women in leadership roles. 

Some successful practices for advancing women into leadership roles include mentoring, reverse mentoring, stretch assignments, and involving women in key corporate projects. “A senior male sponsor can help expose female leaders to higher level networks where they can begin to establish credibility,” Stuckey says.  

Biased Internal Promotions 

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Whether unconscious or not, most organizations still have biased internal promotion practices. People who make internal and external decisions—the board, recruitment organization, or senior-level male leaders—often do not have exposure to women who are up-and-coming leaders, and so they recruit and promote the “guys” they have worked with in the past. It’s easy and feels right. The hiring managers assume their choices will perform the best based on the comfort they have with them.  

Stuckey explains that “organizations need to question their standards of performance related to diversity and inclusion. Not until organizations measure and reward leaders around diversity and inclusion will women advance in organizations. You can’t just reward for the bottom line. It must also be about the success of leaders, specifically regarding the diversity and inclusion agenda.” 

According to Stuckey, there are some pertinent questions organizations need to address: 

  • Are there standards on diversity in decision-making and project planning? 

  • Are there standards on team diversity?

  • Are you tracking to ensure there is a balance of women and men on teams when it comes to role modeling?

  • Is this a managed process and does it represent the organization’s intent of diversity and inclusion?” 

Stuckey notes, “Companies are not doing enough to move from the management and practice of ‘presence’ over performance. More can be done to create a culture where performance is based on outcomes and objectives. This requires an in-depth understanding of leading/lagging indicators for role performance so managers and employees are clear about daily performance. Policies around work life also need to be adjusted in many corporations to better meet women’s expectations.” 

Reverse Mentoring 

Reverse mentoring is an important component in assuring women’s advancement and retention. For reverse mentoring to work, the most senior leaders must commit to and believe in its objective and value.  

“Senior leaders need to be open to learning from one another, no matter the gender. Often when these programs start, it is not clear who should be involved. Organizations need to have identified the gap in knowledge or experience that a senior-level person has, and identify the ‘expert’ or reverse mentor who can provide that experience and expertise. It’s this matching of capability/knowledge gap with a qualified woman at a lower level or same level that makes reverse mentoring so powerful,” says Stuckey. 

“Often, this is part of a larger succession planning or development effort. As women move into more senior roles, the organization works to prepare and plan with them, including exposing them to the capabilities they need. The parameters of structured process and defined outcomes for mentoring (who, why, how and what does success look like) must be in place before the assignments for reverse mentors can occur,” she adds. 

If those elements are in place, the following value and benefits will be available for those, especially women, attempting to move up: 

  • Helping to remove an unconscious bias among male leaders, as they are exposed to bright, thought-provoking women with ideas and successes they would not have heard about before. They will interact and learn from these women, and gain a new view of women as leaders.

  • Creating visibility for female talent that would not have occurred through regular networks

  • Exposing senior male leaders to new approaches and ways of thinking about inclusion and diversity

  • Increasing women’s confidence and helping them build networks

  • Mutual learning, which helps advance innovation and growth. 

Diversity and Inclusion 

The best-in-class organizations succeeding at diversity and inclusion are doing a number of important things. “They are distributing the responsibility for increasing diversity and inclusion across the organization beyond the organization development, HR, or talent areas. Instead of just tracking and reporting on the numbers of women hired and promoted, these organizations ensure that leaders are held accountable for the performance of female leaders. These organizations also take responsibility for on-going role modeling and for creating opportunities for inclusion in decision-making and strategic projects,” says Stuckey.

She advises businesses to enact clear strategies to encourage women to climb the corporate ladder. First, they need to do more than hold forums for women and count the numbers of resumes collected. Instead, organizations should make it a point to include the growth of female leadership as part of the board agenda and the performance indicators of senior-level leaders. 

Indeed, Stuckey details how organizations need to not only track their strategies, but also their progress against objectives focused on business benefits, as well as objectives of having a diverse and inclusive work environment. They must prioritize among competing tactics and drive increased investment toward initiatives that produce results in the diversity and inclusion areas. In other words, Stuckey says that “these companies have established a deliberate career path so women understand the development they must do to advance.”   

Next, diversity and inclusion should be part of an organization’s culture and values. “You need your leadership to model and practice diversity and inclusion daily so it will cascade from one level to the next. Many organizations are investing in training that addresses what participative decision-making looks like and what inclusion looks like. These sessions provide examples of what it means to help or hinder leaders to advance and how the future will look and feel. These very powerful, interactive sessions can expose the current state of beliefs about diversity and inclusion in leadership and the significant shifts required,” notes Stuckey. 

More importantly, Stuckey says that “best-in-class companies teach women how to develop their personal brands, how to network even when unconscious bias is present, and how to get exposure at all levels of leadership to help advance their careers (if they want this). These companies also integrate learning opportunities into general leadership development training.  Coursework should not be a primary strategy for development.” 

Stuckey concludes, “Training programs at best-in-class companies have a global mindset that allows them to initiate training for women leaders across borders, boundaries, and communities.” 

Cynthia Stuckey is managing director at the Forum Corporation, a premiere learning organization, where she provides strategic and operational leadership for all aspects of the company’s business in the Asia Pacific region. As a practitioner, consultant, and senior leader, Stuckey is a respected expert in the areas of international business, corporate transformations, strategy development, and execution of performance enhancement strategies.

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