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 revenue and profitability, companies are failing to put real muscle into achieving it.
The gap between what companies say about gender equality and what they’re actually doing about it is massive: A study by the IBM Institute for Business Value of data from thousands of companies found that even with the best of intentions, women fill only 18% of top leadership roles. Why? It’s largely because 79% of companies have failed to make diversity a priority.
A Necessity, Not a Perk
Companies 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 company, 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.
This virtuous cycle wins companies more than an increase in female leadership. Women in leadership roles can provide invaluable feedback on how other women might feel about your brand, guiding companies toward messaging that is more likely to resonate. This matters more than ever: Forbes valued the “female economy” at more than $18 trillion, with women driving as much as 80% of consumer spending.
Women in leadership positions also make your organization more attractive to employees of any gender, because people increasingly want to work for companies that are genuinely inclusive. That’s especially true for younger employees: Research from the Institute for Public Relations found that nearly half of millennials consider an employer’s diversity and inclusion an important factor in their job searches.
Recognizing the Hurdles
Creating a truly gender diverse and inclusive workplace is a leadership issue. It has to be a key component in the company’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.
To begin with, women tend to be more empathetic. While this trait can make women powerful leaders, it can also interfere with their career advancement. During negotiations, for instance, women tend to empathize with the other party. They don’t necessarily hold firm to what they need or, in salary negotiations, fight for what they’re worth. This is widespread: Twenty-one percent of women are “very uncomfortable” asking for a raise — a feeling expressed by only 12% of their male counterparts.
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% 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% 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. Far from it: If women do try to fit a more masculine mold but that isn’t what they’re naturally like, they can come across as inauthentic because they’re not leaning into their zone of genius. Not only that, but these so-called feminine traits can be leadership superpowers. Everyone should work on their weaknesses, but we should also capitalize on our strengths — no matter how “feminine” or “masculine” they may be.
Empowering Women in Leadership
Research indicates that only companies with a genuine, widespread cultural belief in gender diversity experience these benefits. In other words, companies 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 companies with more passive approaches.
Here are a few key steps to take to help your organization 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 company 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.
Another way to benefit from mentorship programs is to offer mentorship to women outside your organization. When we began the Chewse Rising Leaders Program, our leaders held a monthly meeting or call with female leaders in the program. But because our company was very small at the time, we used “open source” mentorship as a way to broaden our network — and the network of our mentees. By finding female leaders and partnering them with mentors in our company, we were able to connect with women in different industries and expand the female networks on both sides of the mentor-mentee relationship.
Provide Self-Awareness and Diversity Coaching for Leaders
Women in the workplace are interrupted much more frequently than men are. 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 recognize 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 company 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 company 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. Either way, the more often you can create these opportunities, the more it will increase company-wide comfort and transparency.
Women in your company 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. Companies need to recognize 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.
About the author
Tracy Lawrence was the founder and CEO of Chewse, a service that delivers family-style meals to offices from local restaurants, transforming transactional drop-off delivery into an inclusive meal experience in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Chicago and Austin.