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Hidden Gender Bias and Women’s Advancement

September 15, 2011

If the top levels of your organization contain very few women it may not occur to you that your company’s talent management and development programs contribute to the problem. But at a time when the need for top talent is at an all time high, a disproportionately small number of women at the top can be an indicator that its talent development model has a built-in gender bias – and it is hurting not helping top talent advance to senior positions.

Granted, there are many well-publicized factors that contribute to smaller percentages of women at the top. These include women stepping onto the mommy track, gender-related expectations of career decision-makers (e.g. “she wouldn’t want that job, she’d have to move her family”) and the fact that women don’t go into line/operations management positions at the rate that men do. These and other influences warrant the attention and remediation they get.

Our research indicates that there is another factor – one that is rarely recognized and seldom discussed. There is a built-in gender bias in today’s performance management and talent development models. Because development models are assumed to be gender-neutral, it goes unremarked upon that most talent development programs reinforce skills that women are already good at: personal greatness and engaging others while under-emphasizing the skills that are most needed for advancement.

We’ve found that skills in the areas of business, strategic, and financial acumen account for 50% of the criteria used when evaluating C-level candidates or high potential employees. Although decades of studies point to business, strategic, and financial acumen as skills on which bosses rate men as outperforming women, today’s development models rarely deliver strong messages about the imperative to develop and demonstrate these skills.

In today’s challenging business environment, companies cannot afford talent development strategies that are anything less than stellar. To deliver stellar development systems that avoid gender-related constrictions in talent pipelines, Leading Women works with companies to analyze four systems for gender-bias and develop long-term strategies for eliminating it:

  1. Management/Leadership/Career Development – identify constrictions due to disproportionate emphasis on developing interpersonal skills or personal traits.
  2. Performance Management – open talent pipelines by ensuring that business, strategic and financial acumen skills are identified and measured as appropriate at all levels from individual contributor to senior manager.
  3. High-Potential/Succession – ensure that criteria for high-potential designation and succession planning encourage women to meet rigorous business, strategic, and financial criteria for advancement.
  4. Mentoring Programs – help women expand beyond good relationships by using those relationships to develop business, strategic, and financial acumen.

Talent development systems will more consistently and predictably enable the best talent to rise to the top when they address the needs of women to develop and demonstrate business, strategic, and financial acumen.

To receive your copy of the Talent Development and Women’s Advancement: 4 Ways Gender Bias Constricts Your Talent Pipeline, email us or call 401-789-0441.


About the author

Susan L. Colantuono is the CEO and Founder of Leading Women. She founded and ran the Women’s Institute for Leadership at Bryant University from 2002 – 2010, is the author of No Ceiling, No Walls: What women haven’t been told about leadership and has been selected as one of two RI delegates to Vision 2020 a decade-long project to advance gender equality.

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Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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