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Advancing Women Leaders in Organizations: A “How To”

November 9, 2017

Women face a myriad of obstacles in the workplace that serve to disproportionately hold them back from growth and advancement, especially when it comes to leadership. Some of these obstacles include: getting selected during the hiring and promotion processes; fitting in with organizational cultures imbued with masculine values; tokenism; challenges in obtaining desirable assignments; difficulty with relocation; and fewer opportunities for networking/creating social capital, all of which contribute to a significant and well-documented disadvantage.* Widely available data on the lack of gender parity in the number of women in leadership ranks, as well as in their pay, speaks to the quantifiable impact of this disadvantage.

Given these numbers, any call to action for improving the situation for women in organizations seems clear and obvious. Yet, efforts to advance women leaders often face resistance before they are ever launched. Companies that are most effective at advancing women these days recognize that it isn’t enough to build a business case and strategy. They must also be able to compassionately and effectively address stakeholder concerns about reverse discrimination. If leaders in these companies hear employees complaining about the potential unfairness of special opportunities for women, they are aware the concerns likely stem from an uninformed assumption of starting-point equality. What are actually fast-paddling efforts to try to “catch women up” to opportunities provided to men (or at least move women in that direction), are inaccurately perceived or portrayed as initiatives designed to put women ahead.

What can organizations do? In addressing concerns of any majority group, it’s always hard, of course, to ask the kid with the biggest pile of marbles to give up a few. An effective leader must show the child that, in this case, they won the game with help; the floor was slanted. But then, the best leaders and companies also effectively demonstrate how much more fun and engaging the game is for all to play on an even surface.

Unfortunately, even resounding success in building an appetite for diversity and inclusion still isn’t enough. Companies that demonstrate the best results in advancing women leaders: 1) take active steps to improve the environment for all members of underrepresented groups and 2) provide women with specific opportunities, skills and tools to help them overcome unique obstacles.

Is Your Organization Serious about Advancing Women?
How would you describe the culture of your organization when it comes to women in leadership? Are there women in important and respected leadership roles? Do executives signal confidence in these women leaders? Companies working to build a culture inviting to women generally have specific initiatives in place. These may involve coaching for senior executives around symbolic action (e.g., reinforcing messages of inclusion), unconscious bias training for employees, and active policies that ensure women are treated with respect. Hallmarks of an inclusive culture may also include a tendency to celebrate the uniqueness and diversity of ideas, and a focus on the quality of employees’ work (versus, for example, the number of hours worked).

What is happening right now in the culture of your organization?
What about systems? Is your organization working to ensure that its systems and policies are fair and flexible? Do women have the same opportunities as men to be recruited and hired? Are women being promoted at the same rate? Are the processes your organization uses transparent and fair? Organizations serious about advancing women often engage in creative, diversity-focused recruiting initiatives. They take a careful look at their people processes to ensure they are minimizing or eliminating bias in the system, which can involve decision-making training for leaders of people. And they put effort into “changing the rules” around human resource policies, practices and benefits to maximize flexibility and family-friendliness.

What is your organization doing to ensure women want to stay, engage and have opportunities to advance?
Is your organization providing specialized leadership development for women? Does your organization recognize that women face bias and other unique hurdles in the workplace? Does your organization provide training, development and other growth experiences to help women overcome these obstacles? Organizations serious about advancing women make a differential investment in developing their women leaders. This may involve internal training, assignment of strategic growth projects, coaching and feedback, and/or external opportunities to develop, network and build skills.

What is your organization doing to develop women? Is the effort focused on the skills and competencies most important to helping women advance?
What about the executives in your company? Have they articulated a clear goal around advancing women? Are they taking action to fill the pipeline with women leaders? Are executives personally working to support, strengthen, develop and retain women leaders? Companies serious about advancing women have executives who talk about it, create specific goals or visions for it, and often launch powerful sponsorship programs for high-potential female talent.

When it comes to advancing leaders, what executive-led initiatives are going on in your organization?
What about metrics? Metrics matter. While human resource departments in most organizations can easily capture the retention and promotion rates of women as part of larger diversity and inclusion efforts, those measures tend to be lagging indicators. Organizations serious about advancing women use “leading indicator” metrics to help focus their work and evaluate the impact of all initiatives. Publically available dashboards to showcase the movement of numbers toward the organization’s specific numerical goals for advancing women are also popular.

Has your organization identified and made available leading indicator metrics for advancing women?
What about you? Where is your passion? Are you creative? Results-focused? Intentional about culture? Interested in systems? Great at developing others? Focused on numbers? Are you an executive? How can you contribute to your organization’s efforts to advance women leaders? When it comes to increasing opportunity, every action counts!

* Eagly, Alice H. & Carli, Linda L. 2007. Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

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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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