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Half of Organizations Have No Strategy to Advance Women Leaders | Linkage’s State of Women in the Workplace Report

March 3, 2020 Deana LaFauci
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On March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day, where we recognize the achievements of women around the world. It’s also an important opportunity to acknowledge the inequalities and disparities that continue to exist—and renew our commitment to the hard work that must be done to support the advancement of women everywhere.

Women are entering the workforce at greater rates than men and are earning more bachelor’s degrees than men. Women are also asking for promotions, negotiating salaries, and staying in the workforce at the same rates as men.  

And yet, corporate America has made “almost no progress improving women’s representation,” according to McKinsey. In fact, 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.  

Why does this disparity continue to exist? Why are we no closer to achieving gender parity? 

Linkage recently conducted a survey of leading organizations and uncovered some truly startling numbers. Despite a recent surge in interest in the advancement of women leaders and gender parity in the workplace, organizations continue to lack clear strategies, tangible action plans and target goals.

Here are some of our findings:  

1. Some good intentions are there—but the results aren’t.

More than half (53%) of all companies are intent on accelerating the advancement of women leaders, but 51% of organizations have not set targets to increase the number of women in leadership roles.

And, in many cases, good intentions haven’t led to a direct impact on inclusion outcomes or to the advancement of women leaders. In fact, 35% of organizations say they are not inclusive toward all leaders.

In some instances, the intention to advance women leaders may not even exist. Last year, IBM polled 2,300 executives and business professionals across all industries about how their organizations are mitigating the gaps in gender leadership. A staggering 79% of those polled said that they hadn’t prioritized achieving gender equality among leaders.  

2. Many organizations don’t have a strategy to advance women leaders.

Most importantly, 50% of organizations don’t even have a clear or defined strategy to advance women leaders.  

Having a clear, actionable strategy with specific goals is critical when it comes to moving the needle for women in the workplace. We simply can’t get where we want to go if we don’t have tangible and measurable goals, and a thoughtful plan to get there.  

3. Organizations with a strategy in place may be ignoring critical barriers that hold women back.

While some organizations have set strategies to advance women leaders at all levels, many of these strategies are underdeveloped because they don’t target both individual and organizational barriers.  

Here’s what we found: 

  • 49% of organizations say that their strategies don’t address individual development barriers that women are facing, such as networking or negotiation skills. 
  • 49% of organizations say their strategies don’t address organizational barriers that women are facing, such as corporate culture and executive action. 

According to Linkage research, companies that demonstrate the best results in advancing women leaders do two things: they  take active steps to improve the environment for women and all members of underrepresented groups, and they differentially invest in individual women’s leadership trainingBy targeting both individual and organizational barriers to advancement, organizations create an environment where high-performing women leaders both contribute at the highest levels, and advance through the ranks.  

Where do we go from here?  

Bottom Line: Organizations that don’t take meaningful steps to advance women leaders will lose out—they’ll see less revenue, lose out on opportunities, and stifle innovation. This challenging work is critical to the future of organizations around the world.  

The good news is that we have a framework we can turn to in order to help us build and maintain diverse pipelines of talent.  

Here’s how organizations can begin to develop a winning strategy to advance women leaders:  

Action Step 1: Collect Data 

Data collection is essential when it comes to any advancement effort. Collecting and analyzing data allows you to identify—and target—levels of leadership where women leaders appear to be dropping off, as well as key areas of concern for women leaders. 

Action Step 2: Select Target Population & Dimension of Focus 

Once data is available on the percentages of women leaders at each level, identify a target population of women leaders that is at least one level below where the drop-off occurs. Reference Linkage’s research on the advancement of women to learn more about the four dimensions most correlated with the advancement of women—Culture, Talent Systems, Leadership Development for Women, and Executive Action—and select one to focus on.  

Action Step 3: Launch Initiatives & Measure Effectiveness 

Once the goals and plans for any initiative to advance women leaders are clear, the metrics must be too. But here is the key: Leave lagging indicators behind!  

Often, organizations only look at a basic demographic split, such as percentage of female/male employees at all leadership levels, or retention rates for female/male employees in key talent positions. These measures are lagging indicators since they reflect only whether women are choosing to work at your organization, and not the underlying factors that contribute to women’s success—or lack thereof. Instead, embrace leading indicators that help you get ahead of the problem.  

Putting tangible goals on each initiative is critical. One recent example? Goldman Sachs recently announced that starting on July 1, they won’t take any company public unless it has at least one diverse board member, with a focus on gender diversity. 

Action Step 4: Consider Your Diversity & Inclusion Strategy 

In our universe, the same stars can be part of multiple named constellations. In the same way, women are often underrepresented in a variety of different, complex, and interrelated ways. 

Organizations must consider intersectionality and how that relates to the demographic makeup of current and future “stars” within their organizations. In fact, Linkage’s recently published research shows that intersectionality has a measurable negative impact on the advancement of women leaders. For women in different racial and ethnic groups; cultural expectations, life experiences, and a complex combination of different forms of discrimination, including racism and sexism, overlap in ways that profoundly affect their ability to professionally advance. 

With this framework in place, organizations can rise to the challenge of advancing women leaders. Together, we can achieve gender parity and empower women leaders to fully contribute to their organizations and be recognized for their efforts. 

Linkage’s Advancing Women Leaders solution is a practical framework which enables organizations to attract, retain, develop, and advance women leaders at all levels. We start by helping organizations establish benchmarks and strategies to advance their women leaders, then equip women leaders with a variety of development opportunities designed to meet their unique needs, and then expand impact by building a culture where women leaders can excel. 

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