3 Concrete Steps Companies Should Take To Foster Gender Balance In Leadership

Women don't need help. They need to be recognized and treated fairly for their accomplishments.

It’s not just bad business today to ignore women in the workplace. It’s risky business.

Women make up 50% of the workforce, have higher education levels than men, are often the primary breadwinners in their families, yet end up underpaid and underrepresented in the workplace. According to UNICEF, women do 66% of the world's work, but only earn 10% of the world's income.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), if developed countries raised women employment rates to those of men they could increase their GDP by 12% by 2030. Other studies, such as a recent report from McKinsey & Co., say that having more women in the workplace can lead to higher productivity and efficiency.

"Women don't need help. Women need recognition and support. They need champions," says Jane Nelson, lecturer and a director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative. "They have similar qualifications, capabilities, education as men. Companies need to have a strategic framework for gender diversity, with goals, targets, sponsors, and support networks, and with clear leadership from the top."

But changes are difficult to implement as the obstacles that stand in the way of gender balance are often complex and multi-faceted. So complex that most companies aren’t able to come up with the right initiatives to promote change.

To tackle gender challenges in your company, Nelson outlines a three-part mantra for advancing women in the workplace:

Part 1: Engage more strategically with women in your business or associated with your supply chain.

This includes strategies to recruit, retain, and promote women. In 2011, Walmart launched a three-part initiative that focused on training and increasing the number of women suppliers it uses. Mining group Rio Tinto has clear targets to have women represent 20% of its senior management and 40% of graduates hired by 2015.

"We try to get across that the most important thing a company can do is directly engage women as employees, managers, directors, suppliers, distributors, and consumers," says Nelson. "That is just as relevant for companies operating in America as companies operating in any other country."

Part 2: Enable women by providing funds and resources where it matters.

For example, Goldman Sachs launched the 10,000 Women initiative in 2008 to provide training and networks to women entrepreneurs in developing countries. Last year, Intel launched a technology program that aims to train 5 million African women to use the Internet by 2016.

Part 3: Advocate women’s rights and opportunities in corporate communications.

To make sure that all employees are on board, those in leadership positions need to advocate for women’s issues, says Nelson, who believes support at the CEO level is "absolutely crucial." As companies grow and become more powerful, they play vital roles in closing the gender gap. While the three-pronged mantra above is a good start for helping women get a seat at the economic table, companies, if they truly want to be competitive, need to dig deeper for women advancement and empowerment.

When it comes to recruiting and promoting women talent, those in leadership positions need to keep a close eye on potential women leaders from all backgrounds.

This doesn’t mean you should promote female employees just because they’re women. Current leaders should be trained to "think outside the box" when searching for new talent, meaning don’t always hire people who think and look like you.

Multinational companies should also focus on leadership training for women in their international offices and consider mentorship programs that allow women from the different offices to connect and network.

We need more women leaders not just for their unique leadership style and perspectives, but also for the young girl who needs to see them to realize she can be one of them.

While the three-pronged mantra teaches companies to enable women by teaching them skills, it’s also crucial that companies really explore what kind of skills they’re teaching women in these programs. The skills should not only help women make money, but should teach women how to build and grow their businesses.

Lastly, even when the CEO is advocating for women’s rights, in order for gender equality to successfully exist, men need to be involved. Male employees need to know that gender issues are not just women’s issues. How do you get the Average Joe to be a part of the conversation?

A report by Catalyst found that the more aware men are of problematic gender bias, the more likely they will support gender initiatives. To accomplish this, companies should consider teaming men up with women on projects or have women leaders mentor male employees.

A good strategy is to think about gender initiatives as simply good business. If your company wanted to attract consumers from China, you would hire an expert who understands what Chinese consumers want and how they think and act. The same kind of strategy can be adopted for women customers. Since women make most of the financial decisions in households, not having females perspectives to attract women customers just seems like bad business.

The deeper companies dig to change these outdated social constructs, the closer they’ll be at implementing real change even after the initiative is over.

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[Image: oculo via Shutterstock]

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1 Comments

  • How about this:

    Step 1. Don't use gender as a factor of decision making for anything except bathroom signs.

    Congratulations, you've made your business as naturally equal as it can be!