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How Can Your Company Better Develop Your Female Talent?


March 15th, 2018

- Updated on

June 14, 2018 - 10:21am

They’re Everywhere, They’re Everywhere ....... But Are We Really Where We Want to Be?

Women, we’re everywhere today - in the news, in the streets, on the minds of anyone who follows day-to-day events across this land. Yes, it seems we are everywhere, except the executive offices of companies, in the C-suite, or in the boardroom. What’s wrong with this picture?
In the United States as of January 2018, 95% of Fortune 500 chief executives are men, only 17 women hold such positions, and women hold only 17% of seats on corporate boards according to Catalyst. The corporate environment is changing, but the movement is slow at best. We really DO need to push it along – for all our sakes.
Why would corporate leaders in need of talent forsake one half of the population? Why would they eschew the $28 trillion of economic impact that McKinsey claims will be the spoils of gender equity? We are working toward gender equity in the workplace because to achieve it will bring benefits to men, women and organizations alike.
Women struggling to advance in leadership depiction
There is an effectiveness gap that we need to close. Up until recently, the efforts in diversity and inclusion initiatives have been scattered, not based on empirical evidence, nor applied equally across the full range of employees.
Diversity training programs first came into being when our armed services came home from war after WWII to find women had stepped into the workplace gaps their deployment created. Since then, most firms and governmental agencies in the U.S. at one time or another have sponsored or mandated diversity training for their staff members. Some companies who provided those scholarships for STEM degrees for women have put support structures and money behind opening opportunities for women. 
That's What She Said Book JacketYet, according to Joanne Lipman, author of That’s What She. Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together, diversity training has taken many forms and been held both as an important corporate initiative or a throw-away over the years, but it has done little to advance the position of women. In many cases, it may have failed entirely - the evidence is damning.
Women continue to be underrepresented in the workplace at all levels and the efforts to build the pipeline are not sufficient to overcome decades of bias that are holding us all back.

Is there a better approach?  How can we all do better?

CEO Pipeline Project Report CoverRecent research by the Korn Ferry Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation shows that there IS progress being made. In the report on the Rockefeller Foundation funded CEO Pipeline Project, 57 current and former women CEOs offered insight into their personal characteristics, their personal and professional experiences and their training and career paths that helped them develop into CEO material. Of note, although 40% held degrees in STEM fields, science, technology or mathematics-related fields, 19% studied business, economics or finance, and 21% earned their degree in the arts or humanities, indicating that there is really no one path to the C suite for women.
Of equal importance is the fact that most of those surveyed stated that they did not consider the role of CEO until someone, a mentor, a trusted advisor, told them that they had it in them. What they also had in common was a drive toward a challenge, a sense of fearless adventure that inspired them to try new things, and a motivation to fulfill a purpose, to make a difference in their organizations and their communities. These traits, coupled with a healthy dose of both confidence and humility allowed them to try out new roles, to ask for help with them needed it, and to seek out the opinions of others in decision-making.
How can we do better? Leaders of organizations who support diversity can learn and apply a few key truths from this study. What are these women CEOs telling us?

Woman with a pen in hand, thinking

  • Keep an open mind in selecting CEO candidates. Women in CEO roles had significantly more wide-ranging roles than their male CEO counterparts. Firms in the process of selecting a CEO should take care not to eliminate female candidates whose career path is not in a straight line to the C-suite. Allow for alternate pathways to leadership.
  • Provide training and exposure to challenging roles early on. The traits of persistence, risk-taking, need for achievement and curiosity are cultivated early in the lives of the survey subjects. However, these are not rare traits, found almost exclusive in men. Many women, too, have these innate characteristics that can be cultivated through assignments in the workplace. Corporations can ensure a pipeline by modifying their criteria for high potential training programs to account for these gender differences.
  • Provide opportunities for cross-cultural exposure and immersion. Women who aspire to the C-suite should also cultivate an awareness and openness to a wide range of opinions. Seeking out those outside of one’s circle for mentoring, and to help shape their strategic vision as a foundation for decision-making.
  • Look at high-potential career paths with a different eye. Those responsible for CEO selection should recognize that the drive to achieve may not be exhibited in women as a singular focus for the latest promotion. The women surveyed were more motivated by a desire for balance, and the opportunity to contribute to a broader purpose. These motivational factors may have meant a change in role, or company or a delay in accepting a position, depending on the stage of life or the alignment with one’s values. A zigzag pattern of career progress may be more common in the women in an organization’s top talent pool.
  • Provide opportunities for mentoring early in a career, and sponsorship once a high potential woman reaches the feeder ranks for CEO. 
  • Get creative in targeting talent early on. Since STEM careers are a good pathway for women to achieve high-level career roles, seek out ways to support STEM programs in middle and secondary schools, and colleges. Examples of this sort of sponsorship include the FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST Lego League for younger students, science fairs, college level Women in Engineering programs etc.
  • Capitalize on traits learned outside the work environment. Organizations should take care to eliminate any bias against women whose careers included detours during the childrearing years, or who are actively parenting. Many of the women CEO’s who were surveyed pointed out that “being a mother added to their abilities as an executive leader. It gave them…a sense of perspective, practice on patience and compassion and in setting appropriate boundaries, setting expectations and making unpopular decisions.” All of these are desirable traits in a CEO operating today.
These suggestions, straight from the minds and hearts of women CEOs closely align with those of our AJO Executive Coaches who frequently work to hone leadership capacity in high potential women at critical decision points in their careers.

Listening to The Voices of Experience. What AJO's Executive/Leadership Coaches Are Seeing

I had the opportunity this month to speak with two AJO Executive/Leadership Coaches after a recent AJO Coach’s Forum, where discussion on Women in Leadership and the barriers to women’s advancement took center stage. Marie Armenio and Shefali Salwan are women who have held positions of power and influence throughout their successful corporate careers, and who now work with AJO, coaching other women to overcome barriers to their success. Their perspectives shed some important light on the perceptions and the reality about what’s holding women back, and what can be done to break down those barriers. Here are portions of our interviews.
Women in Leadership – An Executive/Leadership Coach Perspective

Q. What if any barriers do you see for aspiring women leaders, whether at the Director, VP, or higher position? Are these barriers specific to gender or to field or industry?

AJO Coach Shefali Salwan HeadshotA. Shefali Salwan: From my former position as Global Lead for Diversity and Inclusion, Unilever, I saw that the barriers were two-fold. On the demand side, there is a comfort level with the status quo. Why change when things are working out just fine for the individuals in power. On the supply side, we are not doing enough to prepare women to step up to leadership roles. Finally, working on the supply and demand side is not enough. Especially during the child-rearing years when high potential employees are moving from Director to VP level, women’s lives require additional flexibilities and creative strategies that they can incorporate into their work life to stay active in the workplace. Otherwise, we will lose them, high potential or not, because the choices between family and highly demanding positions are just too stark.
AJO Coach Marie Armenio HeadshotA. Marie Armenio: I see barriers to women aspiring to leadership roles as a matter of perception, expectation, and access. Companies are recognizing women’s contributions more and more, but not in all areas. Women are advancing in Marketing, Human Resources, Finance, but not within the technology or STEM fields as much. Companies have yet to feel pain from adhering to the status quo- it has not yet impacted their business in a tangible, way. Shareholders are happy, so why change. On the positive side, I do see a growing trend where some companies are dismissing the attention paid to narrow affinity groups – now people are people – keeping the focus on our differences only keep us apart as opposed to finding commonality. If this trend continues, it may be good for everyone. But, on the other side, women are weighing the return and reward for pushing through those barriers that do exist, and finding the rewards are just not worth it. The myth of having it all does not define this generation of women, as much as the desire to have a balanced life. Their work is not the sole defining element of their success.

Q. What have you seen companies do that works to advance the leadership opportunities for talented women?

AJO Coach Shefali Salwan HeadshotA. Shefali Salwan: On the demand side, there must be a business case for opening opportunities to capable women. It is important to put in place accountability including measurement and directional goals to ensure that leaders are held to achieving goals.  I’m not talking quotas here.  Women themselves resent the thought of quotas. But, for example, if there is a high potentials list for promotion, women must be on that list.  Managers must be accountable for putting women on that list and for considering them for future roles.
When high potential women do leave the company, exit interviews can point out why, and what was done or not done to keep them. Companies that are serious about achieving gender equity are providing mentors, coaches, and flexible, family-based enabling programs to reduce the outward pressures that cause women to opt out at certain levels of their careers.
In my experience, our diversity programs themselves did not have the desired effect until Senior Executives faced personal emotional situations in which they could see how discrimination would impact those they cared about. We filmed the daughters of Senior Executives talking about their aspirations and concerns and played the film for these leaders. Their daughters' voices were so personal, so moving. They brought the message home loud and clear. 

Q. What are the specific strategies you employ when coaching aspiring women leaders to achieve that next level?

AJO Coach Marie Armenio HeadshotA. Marie Armenio: The barriers that I see in coaching women transitioning to the next level in their careers, from Director to Senior Director, VP or the next President of their firm are both of perception of others, and themselves. I work with women primarily in the areas of Executive Presence and Communication. There are some gender-specific issues particularly in communication style that women must overcome, but they do not seem to be specific to field or industry. For example, a no-nonsense, very direct woman may be perceived as not approachable, or the “B” word, whereas a man with that approach is applauded.  This can be a matter of perception or role expectation. So, I coach women to work on building trust through relationships and influencing rather than “telling” in their communication style. I also advise them to take things less personally. When conflicts arise, it is best to put it into the business context and not take the conflict or the slight personally.
I coach women to find a mentor/sponsor, within the organization to increase their opportunities to move up. They should look for someone they admire, whom they can emulate. They need to build relationships so that they can learn about how their sponsor navigated this journey, then apply what may work to their own situation.  Women, I find, are good at helping bring others up through the ranks. They are motivated to pass along what they have learned. Sometimes those newer to management roles may rely too heavily on social media platforms like LinkedIn etc. for networking. 
I say, “Get up, build personal relationships. Pick up the phone; walk down the hall and talk with people to make that personal connection.”
AJO Coach Shefali Salwan HeadshotA. Shefali Salwan: I am currently coaching a woman who just recently was promoted to lead an important program in her firm. She has a Ph.D. in her specialty and has worked hard to get where she is. Now she has a young child and the conflict between required travel to conferences across the country, and her little one’s care is causing her to question her decision to accept this promotion. I have been focusing our coaching time on helping her to alleviate her guilt that seems connected to her success, and to look at creative solutions to the situation that is causing her such angst. Ultimately, she asked the child’s grandparent to travel to the conference over the weekend with her child, allowing her to attend the conference and not have extended time away from her son. This is just one example of the situations that women face when their ambition crashes up against corporate pressures and expectations that have been in place for too long. Companies will do better in retaining women of ambition if they consider employing structures and family-friendly programs that enable the flexibility that women need to balance both sides of the demand.

Q.  Are there any final thoughts on this topic that you would like to share?

AJO Coach Shefali Salwan HeadshotA. Shefali Salwan: Companies must provide whatever it takes, extra development, extra coaching, stretch assignments, sponsorship, and roles that provide visibility because aspiring women leaders don’t have enough role models to look to. Those that they see who have achieved at the highest levels today may be perceived as having given up too much to achieve career success. We must reach the tipping point of 20 women per every 100 leaders for women to perceive the opportunity as achievable and themselves as a potential leader who can achieve that next level without sacrificing themselves and their values in the process.  
I grew up in a culture where the powerful, yet nurturing archetype was common. Those archetypes are lacking in the U.S. culture. I believe that women today desire to be both highly powerful and highly nurturing. Women don’t have to turn away from either side of their nature but can succeed by embracing both. Companies, all of us, will benefit if they do.
AJO Coach Marie Armenio HeadshotA. Marie Armenio: Women want to be committed to success but on their own terms. Self-awareness and a sense of their own presence and communication style are key. Flexing to the needs of an audience without compromising their own authenticity in the process – those are elements that will help women encounter less noise from the organization while building trust in themselves and in those around them.

What Else is Working?   Is There More Light Up Ahead?

Such good advice from two savvy women. They got me thinking. Is there anything else operating in organizations today that will help us reach gender equity?
A recent approach to diversity training called Unconscious Bias Training is having positive effects by some accounts, although the jury is still out on this practice. Google used Unconscious Bias Training to enhance its corporate diversity, with more than half of its workforce taking part. In the case of Google’s training initiative, unconscious bias refers to the stereotypes, both negative and positive, that exist in our subconscious and affect our behavior. First implemented in 2013, the training lasts 60 to 90 minutes and is run by a coordinator who has undergone at least 12 hours of training. 
Their findings after several years of the initiative empirically indicated that participants in its internal training leave with a higher understanding of unconscious bias, and more motivation to mitigate bias, than their untrained peers.
Other accounts by consulting and diversity training firm, Pinnacle, indicate results in line with Google’s. Their post-training surveys indicate that 96% of participants leave intending to engage in behaviors to reduce bias. An article in Harvard Business Review (Don’t Give Up on Unconscious Bias Training — Make It Better) recounts these successes and the potential pitfalls to avoid when a firm decides to employ Unconscious Bias Training. 
The authors recommend three principles to ensure a strong initiative.
  1. Strike a careful balance between limiting defensiveness about unconscious bias, while communicating the importance of managing bias.
  2. Structure the content around workplace situations. 
  3. Make it action-oriented.
I would add a fourth to these recommendations. 
  1. Ensure that all employees participate in the training and any follow-up studies to measure impact.
Why add that extra recommendation?
Mercer Report on Women - Report Cover ImageThe 2016 Mercer When Women Thrive Report illuminates gender biases in employment practices across the globe and provides insight into regional differences. The report shines a spotlight on practices that are working and those that hold women back, then offers recommendations that will improve outcomes. This study found that only 39% of middle managers and 38% of male employees were engaged in diversity and inclusion initiatives in 2016. What good is training only a small portion of one’s employee base, and the wrong portion at that - hence recommendation number four.  

CEOs Take Action. A Hopeful Sign

There are, indeed some encouraging signs that corporate leaders are taking the challenges of gender equity, and diversity and inclusion overall to heart. Last summer, the group, CEO Act!on, representing CEOs from 350 companies, drafted a Diversity and Inclusion Pledge that now has 270 signatories. The pledge outlines specific premises and actions that CEOs will take to bring about an environment of trust within their organizations where all people can thrive and contribute. Goals from this gathering are impressive.
“With more than 350 CEOs of the world’s leading companies and business organizations, our goal is to leverage our individual and collective voices to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.”
“Our goal is to rally the business community together to take measurable action in advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Companies recognize that signing the pledge is the first of many important steps toward meaningful change. Contributing to and learning from the database of diversity and inclusion actions is another. With businesses anchored in almost every community across America, we have the opportunity—and responsibility—to play a meaningful role in such an important societal issue.”
I want to take these CEOs at their word. I know that women of ambition, talent and drive will hold us all accountable. Maybe the business case has finally caught up with what we have known all along, companies with more diverse workforces, do better overall. And women leaders, who come at the world with both their power and an innate authentic spirit can and will drive positive change.

Kathy Flora is a Career and Executive Coach and AJO Blogger who is actively pursuing her life’s passion, helping others find and fulfill theirs. Known as a positive change agent, mentor and guide, she has assisted hundreds of leaders and their teams understand their strengths, collaborate effectively, and drive organizational success. She has a special affinity for working with virtual teams, using webinars, virtual meet-ups, and online collaborative communities to optimize communication and productivity. Her experience spans over 25 years in executive management and leadership, career development, facilitation, and consulting in private firms, state government, and in federal agencies.