Cultivating women leaders

Cultivating female leaders continues to be an elusive goal, delegates at the Women’s Forum Global Meeting 2017 in Paris were reminded.

“Companies fall into the trap of assuming diversity programmes are sufficient,” said Jean Martin, Executive Director of Gartner. But they do not overcome fundamental problems like unconscious bias, management and cultural issues, she added.

Despite years of awareness and talk, glass ceilings restricting career progression are still a reality for women in the workplace. Companies benefit from diversity at all levels of management, but boardrooms remain predominantly the preserve of men. Industry suffers, too, when disillusioned women leave after a promised career progression never materializes.

Photo credit: Women’s Forum/Sipa Press

A first step in tackling these problems is to promote transparency within the organization. Some companies publish salaries and the formulae used to arrive at them, noted Jean Oelwang, President of Virgin Unite. Gender balance data should also be made available.

Women must also be able to raise issues of unconscious cultural bias without fear of retaliation, she said. One example of this is the assumption that women will not accept posts abroad because their husbands will not want to relocate.

Women should not only defy stereotypes, but also question why those stereotypes exist in the first place. Once something is seen as unacceptable, it cannot be unseen. “We shouldn’t have to make the case for gender diversity any more,” Oelwang concluded.

Overcoming cultural bias

New technology can help to remove bias, for example use of objective assessment technology in recruitment. Robots do not care if you wear a skirt, commented Fleur Pellerin, President of Korelya Capital, but it is important for women to be involved in the programming.

“How many women want white middle-aged men to solve their problems?” asked Laura Quatela, Chief Legal Officer of Lenovo. Overcoming stereotypes and cultural bias would be easier if more women could break through the glass ceiling into senior leadership positions. Women need to be more involved in offering solutions.

Lack of confidence can set in early for women. “At puberty, 50% of girls experience a drop in confidence, and some never recover from it,” explained Ranya Shamoon, Vice President of Procter & Gamble. Education is needed to change this damaging mindset.

Creating effective networks and mentoring programs to prepare women for senior positions is one way of building confidence, but there are other ways, too. EY research with C-level executives in business revealed that 94% of them played sport. “We don’t need to be athletes to succeed in business, but it suggests if you play sports, whatever it takes to get to the top is baked into you,” said Beth Brooke-Marciniak, Global Vice Chair of EY.

Networks need to work

Networks work for men, and they should work for women too. “Women have become dissatisfied with traditional networking events,” said Meena Harris, President of the Phenomenal Women Action Campaign. Many find them overwhelming and lonely experiences.

Women want to develop long-term relationships. Networks are more effective when you have guidance, and can connect the dots between people, Harris said. “Problem-solving has to be the primary focus of a network,” agreed Amy Yu, Vice President of IPDN. The network needs to be more than a talking shop: it should provide guidance for women in pursuit of defined objectives.

Company network and resource groups must have C-level executive support, and be aligned with the goals of the business. They should also be diverse and inclusive, with men and women of all ages participating.

To make true connections, network members need to be honest and real. They need to have a voice to share, and they must be prepared to speak out. Getting male colleagues on board is key because they can help break glass ceilings.

Helping women prosper

How can women who break through the glass ceiling ensure others can follow in their footsteps? Senior executives from the financial services industry offered pointers for business leaders to help women prosper:

· Ensure CEO commitment

· Hire on merit — no one wants to be the token female

· Ensure there is a pipeline of talented women in the organization

· Establish a sponsorship programme and ask senior male colleagues to participate

· Establish an effective promotion policy

· Ensure female candidates are included in succession planning

· Pay attention to women’s development

· Build diversity targets into workplace initiatives and recruitment.

· Hold managers to account on diversity and hook it in to KPIs and compensation

Cultivating female leaders rests on the action women take. Delegates were reminded of the comment by former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that there is a “special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

“Promoting women should not be thought of as something exceptional. It should be natural, if you have the talent and skills for the job,” said Valérie Vitter-Mouradian, Managing Director of HSBC.

This story is drawn from sessions at the Women’s Forum Global Meeting 2017.