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How Can We Change the Game for Women in the Workplace? | Q&A: Jill Ihsanullah, PhD

May 6, 2019 Deana LaFauci

Organizations are expressing commitment to gender diversity, but the proportion of women at every level of corporate America has hardly changed in the past decade.

Here’s the answer, says Dr. Jill Ihsanullah of Linkage: Organizations must invest in the areas that have the greatest impact on the advancement of women leaders.

In her latest research, Changing the Game for Women in the Workplace, Jill identifies the four dimensions most directly correlated with the empowerment and effectiveness of women leaders.

The white paper, which was written with Dr. Nada Hashmi of Babson College, identifies culture, talent systems, professional development for women, and executive action as the most important areas for organizations looking to move the needle when it comes to the advancement of women.

“The gender gap in leadership has been made clear over the past few decades in a multitude of ways,” said Jill, who serves as Linkage’s principal researcher and thought leader on gender and leadership. “With this new research, Dr. Hashmi and I are delighted to contribute to the discussion about this problem—and the specific ways to solve it.”

We sat down with Jill to hear more about her research and to learn how organizations can use baseline and benchmark data to meet and exceed their goals for the advancement of women leaders.

Why is this research so vital?

Many CEOs have announced goals to increase the percentage of women in leadership roles. But the situation for many organizations looking to achieve gender parity is comparable to trying to cook a gourmet meal without a proven recipe, or possibly even without ingredients. The framework and findings presented in this research will help companies identify where their biggest areas of opportunity are—and which levers to pull to really move the needle for women.

Why should organizations treat gender diversity as a business priority?

There are many arguments for advancing women. These can include an organization’s focus on generating new ideas and perspectives, developing innovation, creating an employee base that better reflects customer demographics, building a stronger leadership bench, improving team performance, and, for some, living their values. However, the key part of this question is about treating gender diversity as you would any other business priority. That means setting specific, actionable goals in terms of the outcomes you want to achieve for women, identifying leading indicator metrics, implementing strategies to achieve the goals, and measuring impact.

Should organizations consider setting specific goals or targets for gender representation?

Yes, big goals certainly inspire action and demonstrate to the marketplace that gender parity is a priority. However, internally for organizations, the goals need to be about more than just increasing the number of women at different levels. There are many obstacles that hold women back. If an organization hasn’t collected data to understand the perspectives of their women leaders, then anything they do to try to accelerate advancement could end up addressing the wrong need. For example, it is possible to measure whether women in an organization feel like they belong, whether they feel that their values resonate, whether they are engaged, the extent to which they aspire to lead, and/or their belief in a future with the company. Data like this helps identify where an organization’s real challenges are and enables informed decision making about targeted solutions, an approach that will ultimately lead to solving the larger problem.

Why is collecting benchmark data so pivotal to meeting these goals?

Organizations seeking to accelerate the advancement of women benefit from both baseline and benchmark data. Baseline data, collected before any initiative is implemented, helps organizations understand where they are starting, measure demonstrated impact, and make any needed adjustments in the solutions. Benchmark data is also very useful. It enables organizations to explore how the perspectives of their women leaders compare to those of women in other organizations. This type of comparison can help uncover unique areas of strength and opportunity for an organization that are sometimes quite a surprise.

Tell us about the four opportunity-rich dimensions that organizations should consider as they look to advance women leaders.

My favorite way to illustrate how to advance women in organizations is with a story of salmon swimming up the river to spawn. In this metaphor, one species of salmon is having a harder time than others getting upstream. It is a systemic problem that deeply affects not only the salmon but the food chain all the way up to grizzly bears and humans. To address the issue, we might look at the quality of the water the salmon are swimming in, which in organizations would be the culture. We can also examine the height of the steps over which the salmon must jump on their way up the river. These steps are akin to the availability of opportunities for women through an organization’s talent systems. We can always study the salmon themselves and help them learn new ways to jump, which is representative of the differential investments that companies make in providing leadership development for women. Finally, there is such a thing as a salmon cannon, designed to suck salmon in like a vacuum cleaner and shoot them over the ladder, up the river. This fast and effective cannon represents executive action and other high-level initiatives, like sponsorship, that an organization’s executives can champion to create quick wins.

According to your research, highly effective women are seven times more likely to be found at organizations where executives creatively work to retain female talent. Tell us more about this.

Executives are perceived as symbolic representatives of an organization’s values. When executives lead and participate in efforts to advance women, it sends a powerful message to all employees about the organization’s priorities. It also serves to directly engage, advance, and retain the best talent. Our research found that the most effective women leaders are found in organizations where executives are personally involved in engaging and supporting them.

What most surprised you about the findings in your research?

Sometimes, even when you know something in your gut or have witnessed it in individual organizations, seeing huge effects in data like this can still take your breath away. I was amazed by the breadth and depth of the impact of leadership development on women. I was surprised by the extent to which executive action affects not only women’s belief in their future with the organization but their effectiveness as well. And still to be released, but from the same body of research, is a fascinating finding about how the lived culture of an organization affects women’s likelihood of promoting the company to others (Net Promoter Score), while more tangible programs and benefits do not have the same kind of impact.

We know that women are underrepresented at every level, and women of color are the most underrepresented group of all, lagging behind white men, men of color, and white women. How do we create leadership development opportunities viewed through this lens of intersectionality?

The lens of intersectionality is so important. The data on women leaders that we will share in forthcoming reports has permanently changed the way Linkage looks at advancing women. Our newest findings shine a light on bias against, and sometimes for, women in seven specific racial and ethnic groups. The findings also highlight unique development needs for women connected to their race and ethnicity. We encourage organizations to include, as part of their data collection, opportunities to understand the impact of intersectionality on their own population of current and future women leaders.

Have you set a goal related to the advancement of women leaders at your organization? If so, how will you achieve and exceed your goal? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

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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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