4 ways to get more women in top roles

U.S. companies alone spend $8 billion a year on diversity initiatives with lackluster results. Why lackluster? If the ultimate intent is to increase the percentage of women in leadership, then the numbers, moving at glacial speed, tend to speak for themselves.

The Gender Intelligence Group recently conducted a detailed study to assess the diversity programs that create a sustainable impact in advancing women into senior management. We gathered data from three technology companies, four financial services firms, and two accounting firms to determine what works and what does not work.

We first set out to understand the reasons the nine companies were focusing on gender. Why was it on their radar? In their order of importance, leaders in human resources, diversity and inclusion, and various heads in business units responded with this list of motivations:

  • A business imperative
  • Problems recruiting women
  • Problems advancing and retaining women at the senior level
  • Higher turnover of women compared to men in mid-management
  • Women at all levels scoring employee surveys lower than men at all levels
  • Fierce competition for women’s talent

We then asked company leaders to define the organizational barriers they came up against in their attempts to advance women into positions of leadership:

  • A business imperative
  • A male-dominated leadership culture
  • Lack of understanding of the economic bene t of gender diversity
  • Bias toward male characteristics in recruitment and traits of merit-worthy leadership
  • Absence of role models for women leaders and for male leaders to witness women performing and succeeding in leadership positions
  • Outmoded preconceptions and traditional mindsets about the strengths of women and their role in business
  • A lack of mentoring and sponsorship of high-potential women
  • Work-life flexibility programs that didn’t address the needs of women in senior leadership

Of the diversity programs employed by the nine companies in our study, these are the top four that leaders in our surveys claim had the greatest effect in creating a sustainable impact in advancing women into senior management.

1. Leadership accountability

As a practice, leadership accountability effected the most positive change in the advancement of women into leadership positions across the nine companies that participated in the study. Leaders were held accountable for inclusive leadership competencies and behaviors using a 360 leadership tool. Company leaders reported quarterly metrics by gender for their departments and divisions such as employee engagement, advancement, retention, and talent management.

What made the practice of leadership accountability the most successful across these companies was that male leaders weren’t motivated by compliance but rather by a deep personal commitment that came from their greater understanding of the economic value of gender diversity in leadership.

To build that understanding, a business case was developed for each company, customized to their particular industry. This dollars-and-cents argument was used as the rational for gender diversity, and in doing so, captured the attention of senior leadership, by presenting the case for women in leadership as a financial benefit even the most ardent cynic could buy into the logic.

2. Gender coaching and training

Knowledge building is often overlooked in the execution of personal development initiatives. Gender coaching and training programs were modified to become information sharing and awareness workshops and one-on-one coaching sessions intended to increase leaders’ knowledge of gender differences.

In these nine companies, knowledge building preceded strategy and implementation; and there was no blame placed on men. Once male leaders were presented with the business case for gender diversity and the neuroscience that underlies gender differences in critical thinking skills, they become strong advocates for the women in their organizations who are looking to advance.

3. Male sponsorship

Sponsorship programs that worked were modified to involve senior male leaders sponsoring high-potential women. As a result of gender coaching and training, male leaders were eager to sponsor the high potentials in their departments and cross-divisionally in a majority of companies in the study. Sponsorship training in one-on-one coaching sessions helped to develop in male leaders a solid understanding of their role as sponsors.

Other distinguishing factors found in the sponsorship programs included having women participating in the program to sponsees undergo a 360 assessment of their leadership competencies; show they have met or exceeded performance objectives over a two-year time frame; and to have charted out a five-year career plan. Another factor that contributed to the program’s success was that many women sponsees had multiple sponsors from different divisions within their companies.

4. Succession planning

Succession candidates became more diverse once the blind spot of assessing high potentials on the basis of sameness was removed. Well-intended business leaders often build meritocracies where the talented in the organization — regardless of their gender — are promoted based on their abilities and achievements. Their blind spot is in not seeing the built-in inequalities in their organizations when measuring performance. So when organizations say they are fair in promoting, they are actually looking for a very specific set of behaviors that tend to favor men during succession planning.

The modification in thinking created a gender-mixed and highly diverse slate of candidates. This improved line of sight into succession planning had senior leaders involved in removing similar blind spots in merit-based evaluations, candidate selection, and candidate leadership training and development.

Whether in decision making, managing projects, closing deals, or leading teams, women will often get to the same results, and oftentimes improve the outcomes, using a different path than men. Yet, in most meritocracies, sameness thinking is valued and rewarded over difference thinking.

Some might argue that the business world is highly competitive, but the world is changing and expectations of leaders to be more inclusive, create engaged workforces, and seek win-win solutions to complex problems are growing.

Through the coaching and training initiatives just outlined, company leaders grew to realize that their meritocracies, based on gender sameness, were contributing to women’s falling short in their advancement. Leaders modified and expanded their new talent management initiatives to recognize competencies based on the unique ways in which men and women approach business situations, make business decisions, and lead and manage teams.

Excerpted by permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Results At The Top: Using Gender Intelligence to Create Breakthrough Growth by Barbara Annis and Richard Nesbitt. Copyright 2017 by Barbara Annis and Richard Nesbitt.