By Lori Stevic-Rust
This is particularly true when it comes to gender diversity. Despite the challenges, many companies are aggressively tackling this issue for one primary reason — the bottom line. In fact, retaining women in leadership positions, is now considered a business imperative.
There is growing evidence that organizations with more women in senior leadership positions enjoy better financial success. According to a 2007 study conducted by McKinsey and Co., European firms that had the highest percentage of women in leadership roles saw stock value climb by 64 percent compared to the average of 47 percent. However, when McKinsey surveyed and asked about the connection between diverse leadership teams and financial success, gender differences were revealed. While 85 percent of female respondents believed there was a connection, only 58 percent of male respondents felt likewise. Only 28 percent of the organizations identified diversity as a top-10 strategic agenda item.
That said, the data cannot be ignored. Many companies are now acknowledging the data and using it to drive their organizations on a path to improving the bottom line by focusing on initiatives to advance women into senior leadership positions. Where to begin, however, is the struggle facing many companies.
Creation of Gender Diversity
In working with organizations on diversity topics, I find that one of the most important strategies is to begin to remove diversity from the HR to-do list and put it front and center as a business goal. Successful diversity initiatives should become an integral part of the business plan and strategy. That translates into tracking and reporting on diversity metrics in the same way that profit and losses, market share, and business trends are examined. If diversity is a critical component to the financial success of a company, it cannot be viewed simply as an HR policy.
Focus on operational definition: While this may seem to be common sense, I often find that, unless an organization clearly defines what it means operationally, the initiative may fail. An operational definition involves defining and measuring the process involved in creating diversity. This definition includes a clear descriptive path involving the procedures and measurable outcomes in a way that all areas of an organization can replicate.
Conduct leadership briefings to understand how diversity connects to the mission and guiding principles of the organization: It is one thing for an organization to recognize the importance of advancing women. But creating energy and focus to sustain it is where the real change occurs. For example, if the cornerstone of a company is innovation, which is driven by diverse thinkers, then the value of diversity remains a critical focus. Similarly, if the product that a company creates and/or sells is largely purchased by women, then matching the demographic consumer to the leadership becomes an integral part of the operational business plan. It is through these briefings that issues of why women are not seeking higher positions and why many are leaving these positions at a disproportionate rate when compared to men, becomes clearer.
Examine the overt and covert barriers to women in leadership within the organization: In working with one company, what became very clear as a result of a leadership briefing was that travel was a huge barrier to securing women in leadership positions. As an internationally based organization, this company had an implicit policy that required extensive travel. For women with children, this presented a huge barrier that was often not explicitly discussed.
Establish and sustain initiatives to strategically address barriers and biases: Barriers are often easy to change when a company is willing to examine difficult and often controversial biases. The very reason that diversity is valued is that it inherently brings different opinions, values, and ideas to the boardroom, which clearly yields greater profit and success. But the process can be very difficult. Working as a diverse team means being put in a position of challenging our own biases on issues of family, religion, sexual orientation, and work ethic. For example, one of the most frequently cited barriers for women to advance into more senior roles is the need for flexible scheduling. If an organization is willing to initiate such a policy, then an open discussion should follow on beliefs and values around the policy. For example, one company reported that women who left work “early” to attend a sporting event for their children or went home to care for a sick child were viewed as “less committed” than their male counterparts. These hidden beliefs need to be tackled in an open fashion as part of the strategic process.
Empower women to empower other women: Intuitively, it would seem that women leaders would tend to advance more women through the middle-management ranks. To the contrary, women leaders tend to do no better and sometimes are less effective than men at mentoring or advancing women. The mentorship and sponsorship of women to women is critical in the creation of a diverse workforce.