It is impossible to open a magazine, turn on the news, or browse the internet without coming across multiple headlines about the need for more women in positions of leadership. There are numerous conferences around the globe touting female empowerment and rallies for gender equality in the workplace. Yet the disparity continues as women make exceedingly slow progress to gain positions of leadership. Women only account for 5.8% of CEO positions in S&P 500 companies, according to a 2020 survey by Catalyst. Since 2015 corporate America has made almost no progress on improving women’s representation. From the outset, fewer women than men are hired at the entry-level. And at every subsequent step, the representation of women further declines, according to a Women in the Workplace report in 2018.
So, the question begs to be answered: What are women getting wrong?
First, women need to ensure that men are viewed as partners and not as part of the problem. Women’s initiatives can sometimes have a polarizing effect. For example, the May/June 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review provides evidence that sexual harassment programs sometimes backfire. Their research reported an average decrease of 5% of female representation in management when companies implemented sexual harassment training programs.
To bring men to the table, create focus groups to discuss women’s initiatives. This gives opportunities for both genders to have breakout sessions and openly share perspectives. Also, rather than making assumptions about how male colleagues view women’s initiatives, create surveys to poll them, and get honest feedback. Then be direct: ask male leaders to provide input on how to close the gender gap in the workplace. Their answers may surprise you.
By getting men involved in the process, they will be more likely to feel their opinions are valuable and will be much more apt to buy into whatever strategies are implemented. Avoid any language that feels blameful, which can lead to defensive attitudes from male counterparts.
Second, any women’s initiative should be positioned as an issue that has consequences for all parties, not just females. Consider what the impact will be for each stakeholder (the CEO, organization, employees, industry, community, etc.) whether an action is taken or not. Will there be negative consequences for any particular stakeholder if initiatives are not put into place? For example, disengagement from female colleagues if initiatives are not implemented, or low-performing teams from the lack of diversity. The organization could also be viewed as out-of-touch with its employees, customers, or society if it only has male leadership, and therefore, be at risk of missing out on key consumer groups and unable to attract top female talent.
Third, use data, not emotion, to promote reasons for the change. Male leaders may feel that any push for women’s initiatives originates from a sense of entitlement or falls into an affirmative action argument. Those reasons need not be the primary focus of the debate because there are multiple data points that demonstrate success when women have been put into positions of leadership.
A case in point is the recent report from CNN detailing the success of female global leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to other global leaders. The rational, decisive measures taken by the female leaders of Germany, New Zealand, and Taiwan resulted in lower incidents and death rates from Coronavirus compared to several other countries led by men who chose to ignore the data and warnings from the scientific communities regarding the dangers.
Research conducted by the Harvard Business Review last year revealed that women ranked higher than men in 17 of 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders versus average or poor, based on analysis of 360-degree reviews.
The key takeaway is that women still have a long way to go in regards to gender equality, especially in positions of leadership. It’s time for women to reconsider their approach by making men partners in initiatives, positioning the discussion to take into account perspectives for all stakeholders, and basing arguments on data.